As fans, we’re naturally drawn to offense. On a team that has been inconsistent with the bats in the early going, we’re looking for anywhere we can get it. We also seem to be almost as obsessed with backup catchers as we are backup quarterbacks, so when we see Welington Castillo peppering baseballs while Miguel Montero and David Ross are struggling, the whispers that he should be playing more are only getting louder.
And as much as we try to avoid it from an intellectual standpoint, small sample sizes tend to sway us and skew our perspective. But the Cubs didn’t get Montero and Ross for their offense. That is expected to come from Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Jorge Soler, Dexter Fowler, and (soon) Kris Bryant. Montero and Ross are here to get the most out of the Cubs pitching staff, something the Cubs didn’t feel they were getting from Castillo.
That is not to say Castillo can’t pick up the nuances of game management and pitch framing, but the Cubs are no longer just about the future. They are no longer about developing players at the MLB level at the expense of the team’s overall performance. Their intention is to win and, specifically, to get off to a good start. Castillo may indeed end up being a good all-around catcher whose mental part of the game catches up with the physical, but the Cubs cannot wait for that to happen. And they can’t depend on it to suddenly appear overnight when it hasn’t happened in two years.
The Cubs front office is about winning games on the margins. They can read a stat sheet, they know Castillo had better numbers than Montero and Ross last year, but the Cubs veteran catchers are not here for their numbers. They are here as part of a plan to take this team to a different level, to help change the culture from one that focuses on individual numbers to one that focuses on doing those seemingly little things that add up.
Given that he is in his prime years, it’s always possible that Castillo is on the brink of a breakout season on offense, but the more logical explanation is that he is on a good run. Projections for the season have him finishing the year as essentially the same catcher he has always been. ZiPS has him at .248/.320/.405 with 13 HRs. Combined with his above average defense in terms of blocking pitches and throwing out baserunners, that puts him at about a 2 win season. By comparison, ZiPS Montero at .230/.326/.354 with 11 HRs. That also is a two win season. From a purely individual statistical standpoint, the expectation is that there will be a negligible difference between the two.
Where the Cubs expect an upgrade, however, is in terms of how well their pitchers perform. If they can incrementally add at least a little value to each pitcher by the way they frame pitches and/or manage the staff, then that adds up. Just from a hypothetical standpoint to illustrate what I mean, what if the veteran backstops add just 0.1 wins to each pitcher? With 12 pitchers, that adds up to a little more than a win.
Many fans continue to tell me that it is not about Montero, they are okay with that. It is Ross they have a problem with. Why not just keep Castillo, platoon him with Montero, and dump Ross?
My question then is how much impact do you expect Castillo to provide if he is playing on the short-side of a platoon when he is already expected to provide just under 2 wins as a projected full-time starter? Even if he plays a very optimistic 40% of the time that adds up to less than one win. That is without factoring how he may negatively impact in terms of his framing (which can be measured fairly easily) or his game management (which cannot). Realistically he will probably be something close to a half-win player in that limited role. David Ross projects to a 0.2 wins and that does not include the impact he has in terms of framing, game management, and leadership in the clubhouse. We don’t even have to factor in his relationship with Jon Lester to make a case for him. The framing alone probably evens them out in terms of how much wins they can add in backup roles. At the very least, keeping the big ace happy makes it worth the small difference in overall tangible production.
Finally, though we cannot measure them, the intangibles are likely to tip the balances toward the Montero/Ross combination when all is said and done. That is not to say the Cubs should necessarily trade Castillo. Even as a 3rd catcher who provides an occasional spark and is a better physical defender than either of the veterans, he has better value for the Cubs than what teams are offering them right now in trade.
When Bryant is up and Mike Olt moves to a bench role along with Alcantara, the Cubs should have enough depth to carry all 3 of them until some team realizes that Castillo is a better option than what they have — and are willing to pay the price to acquire him.
Until then, I like the three-headed monster at catcher. And I believe Dr. Maddon-stein has the kind of genius to make it work.
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