I’ve been thinking a lot about this catching situation as a place to possibly upgrade the lineup and a couple of those potential solutions, Russell Martin and Brian McCann, would essentially spell the end of the 27 year old Welington Castillo’s career with the Cubs.
I’ve changed my mind.
Here are the biggest concerns about Castillo
1) His ability to frame pitches
There really is nothing we can debate about that. He struggles in that area. However, that can be taught. We have seen the Astros Jason Castro go from one of the worst framing catchers in baseball to one of the best. It’s largely a taught skill, not an inherent ability.
2) His game management skills.
I think this is vastly overstated. Part of that reason is the so-called catcher’s ERA which is higher for Castillo than it is for backup John Baker. Let me just say that statistic is basically useless. He has had issues in the past working with Matt Garza, who demanded that Dioner Navarro be his personal catcher. But let’s face it, this is Matt Garza we are talking about. He wants to do things his way and he had a past relationship with Navarro, which perhaps made the easy-going backstop more willing to accommodate Garza’s whims. That’s not a knock on Navarro but sometimes you have to choose your battles.
As for Castillo, what is his way?
It’s exactly how the Cubs want it to be. Cerebral. Catching guru Mike Borzello said that Castillo does “an outstanding job” when it comes to preparation. He works hard with pitching coach Chris Bosio to put together scouting reports and, just as importantly, sticks to them faithfully.
Here is what Kyle Hendricks said about him after Tuesday’s start…
“Welly and I, pretty much on the same page again, like always, like we have been every start. It makes it a lot easier when it’s like that.”
No pitcher on the Cubs studies scouting reports the way Hendricks does. If he and Castillo are on the same page then you can be pretty sure the game is being called per the plan based on those reports. It’s no coincidence that Castillo has been the catcher for Jake Arrieta’s most dominant starts this year. His rapport with the two Cubs pitchers that are certain to be part of the rotation next year cannot be overlooked.
Jed Hoyer certainly doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to deal his catcher,
“I really believe in Welly. … His name doesn’t get mentioned a lot when we talk about our established young veterans, but he can be in that mix as well.”
He can be in that mix. The lack of certitude in that phrasing leaves the door open, but I think that’s more a statement about how Castillo is not yet a finished product. For his part, Castillo knows this,
“I think I’ve been better,” he said, “but I can get better as a receiver and catcher.”
One thing nobody doubts is Castillo’s work ethic. If he thinks he needs to get better than you can take it to the bank that he is going to do whatever it takes to do that. If he doesn’t get there, it won’t be because of a lack of effort.
3) His uneven performance at the plate
For the second straight season, Castillo has hit better in the 2nd half. This year that split is much less pronounced but one area where Castillo improved dramatically was in terms of his patience. Since the break, he has increased his walk rate from 4.8% to 8.3% and dropped his K rate from 27.2% to 20.1%. That bodes well for continued improvement into next year.
A bigger concern may be that he does a great deal of his damage against LH pitching, hitting .301/.350/.505 vs. southpaws compared to .216/.281/.340 vs. righties. There is a nearly 100 point difference in wOBA (.376 to .280).
The Cubs may still have themselves a keeper in Castillo but he needs help. The catching situation was a strength last year when he was teamed with Dioner Navarro and I think a similar arrangement is ideal.
To me the best of all possible worlds is a backup or quasi platoon partner that also shores up the pitch-framing gap.
Who are those candidates?
1) Miguel Montero
Montero ranks at the very top in pitch-framing this season. Not only is that a benefit in itself but Montero can also be a mentor to help Castillo improve in this area. Montero also hits left-handed and while his offensive skills have declined the past two years, he is still better vs. RHP (.255/.349/.393; .325 wOBA) than either Castillo or Baker have been this season.
He should be available as the Diamondbacks have stated their desire to rebuild and probably have little use for a 31 year old catcher who will be making $40M over the next 3 years. If the Cubs can exchange him for Edwin Jackson that would save Arizona a year on the back end of the deal and $18M overall. For the Cubs, that makes Montero’s net price at 3 years and $22M. Considering Castillo is making just $500, 000 this year, you’d be getting a strong duo that makes a combined $8m/yr (net) or so next season. It seems like a win-win to me. I think this deal gets pretty bad by that 3rd year but by then there is a chance that the Cubs will have Kyle Schwarber ready to assume catching duties. Even if the Cubs are not able to dump Jackson, their tremendous short term flexibility allows them to eat a lot of salary over the next two years In the short term, they don’t have to be uber-efficient with every single deal simply because they have so many young, talented players making far, far below market value. They can afford a moderately bad contract in exchange for better production. If Montero gives them 2 win production, then I think they can easily live with taking on that entire deal if it means giving up less value in return, but I think there is enough risk to where the Cubs will want to trim some of that contract down one way or the other.
One more note to add here is that part of Montero’s decline stems from nagging back injuries. Having Castillo to share time will greatly reduce the stress and perhaps he can perform better with less workload.
2) Hank Conger
The Cubs have inquired about him in the past. The switch-hitter has not hit as hoped but he too ranks among the top pitch framers in baseball. He is also ready to enter his prime as he will be 27 by Opening Day.
The Cubs couldn’t pry him loose before but maybe they can buy low after an off-season. Two years ago he hit .249/.305/.420 with 7 HRs vs RHP which is about league average (102 RC+, .315 wOBA) — and again, better than Castillo and Baker have been this season.
Another benefit is that Conger is used to this type of role as he has been the 2nd fiddle to the underrated Chris Iannetta the past two seasons.
3) The 3-headed monster: David Ross and Rafael Lopez
He isn’t going to help on offense but David Ross is a good, experienced catcher who is among the best at framing pitches and will bring leadership to the clubhouse. He may also help bring in Jon Lester since he has been his personal catcher in Boston.
I would also consider keeping 3 catchers in this scenario. The third would be Rafael Lopez, who hits LH and can spell Castillo for the non-Lester starts when he needs a break. He can provide some OBP and good defense without getting exposed too much in his rookie season. Lopez is also a converted infielder who has played some 2B, 3B, and 1B in the past. He can be an emergency infielder to help ease the roster crunch, though the Cubs unique middle of the field athleticism makes them so deep they probably won’t ever need to dig that far down. A luxury they have is that they can be creative when it comes to their roster construction. The first emergency infielder would be Arismendy Alcantara. There is also Luis Valbuena who can play 2B. The latter two can play SS in a pinch as well but with the Cubs having two big league shortstops in their everyday lineup, it will be easy to give the starter a day off without losing much in the way of production or defense . WIth Starlin Castro and Javier Baez and a 3rd SS on the way in Addison Russell, that doesn’t figure to be a long term problem barring a complete catastrophe. And we still haven’t factored in that the Cubs would carry at least one utility infielder. Both Chris Valaika and Logan Watkins can play every infield position. Watkins can even be rostered as a 5th outfielder to help create space. Valaika has also played some corner OF.
I think the Cubs can upgrade this position and lengthen their roster while hanging on to Castillo. I consider him a 2nd division starter and someone who gets exposed a bit if he plays everyday, but there is still some upside left, especially in that pitch-framing area. Teams like the A’s have found value with platoons and time-sharing type situations in which players complement each other’s strengths and minimize exposure to their weaknesses. Castillo may not be an ideal everyday catcher (yet) but a Castillo/Montero platoon would be among the most productive and balanced catchers in the game. It would come at a much smaller cost than signing a free agent like Martin in terms of contract, compensation, and the potential lost value of giving up on Castillo altogether as a starter. In fact, in addition to complementing Castillo’s skills, working with Montero, Ross, and even the young Conger could help Castillo improve that glaring weakness — and that, in turn, could be that next step toward being a legitimate everyday catcher on a contending team.
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