One of the popular topics of conversation in the Twitterverse has become upgrading the catcher position moving into 2015. Without question, incumbent Welington Castillo has not had the type of season that we all would have liked, which is to say he has not emphatically made himself a core piece moving forward.
Welington Castillo has been a middle of the road catcher this season. Among NL catchers with 350 plate appearances, he is 8th in fWAR. Going back to the beginning of 2013, though, he leads NL catchers in runs saved with 25, although 19 of them came last season. He is younger than most of the elite catchers, though, as he will turn 28 just as the 2015 season is starting. Welington may never turn into an All-Star catcher, but at his current cost (entering his first year of arbitration), his production offers value, and does not make a massive upgrade a pressing need. In reality, supplementing Castillo may be a better option, although, it is not clear how easy that will be to do.
This year’s 1st round pick, Kyle Schwarber, is going to attempt to stick behind the plate, but his arrival is off in the distance and his chances of remaining a catcher are still up in the air. Currently, the three catchers on the 40 man roster are Castillo, John Baker, and Rafael Lopez. Baker is a 33 year old journeyman, up and down catcher who most made a name for himself by pitching a scoreless inning and scoring the winning run in what will likely be known as the “Fiesta Forever Game.” The most likely result for him is being non-tendered this winter and possibly being brought back on a minor league contract to serve as catching depth. By all accounts, he is well liked and well respected within the confines of the clubhouse, so there is some reason to bring him back. Lopez is a rookie, who has only appeared in a handful of MLB games. Between AA Tennessee and AAA Iowa this year, though, he did hit .290/.393/.386.
The free agent class of catchers this year is headlined by Pirates’ Catcher, Russell Martin. He is an upgrade over Welington Castillo, to be sure. In fact, he is a clear upgrade over just about every catcher not named Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, and Jonathan Lucroy. While there are a lot of good arguments to be made for adding a player like Martin to a line-up that will feature a number of young hitters, there are other some drawbacks to consider. Martin will turn 32 just before the 2015 season, so his excellent 2013 and 2014 seasons with the Pirates will likely be followed with the regression that comes with Father Time’s perfect record against athletes. When coupled with cost, Martin should at least force the Cubs to pause and wonder if he is worth the eight figure average annual value he will command. If he can be signed for three years and a salary of around $10M, he may be a worthy addition. Beyond that, in both years and dollars, he has the potential to turn into another albatross contract that the Cubs just spent three years working diligently to rid themselves of.
One option to supplement the position is to trade for a veteran catcher. While names around Twitter include Miguel Montero and Brian McCann, it would be difficult to envision either of these players being acquired for a number of reasons. First, their teams will probably demand a legitimate prospect for these players if they’re going to eat any substantial portion of their inflated salaries. McCann can be ruled out almost immediately for the additional reason of having a full no trade clause. The current front office does not give those clauses in new contracts, so it would be a safe bet they would not want to trade for one… and $17M per year through 2018 doesn’t help, either. Montero is signed through 2017, with salaries of $12M in 2015 and $14M in both 2016 and 2017. Three years and $40M for an aging catcher on the decline is a terrible use of salary cap flexibility. Considering the Cubs were unwilling to resign Dioner Navarro after 2013 when he got 2 years and $8M, it is massively unlikely they add a $40M platoon catcher. The financial cost also does not address the cost of acquiring him. Any team interested in acquiring him would have to absorb his contract or deal away legitimate prospect or more for the Diamondbacks to eat some of the salary. Neither of these players make sense for those reasons, even if they do meet some of the criteria the Cubs made be looking for.
The realistic and likely course of action is the course the Cubs have taken the past few seasons. Attempting to find a veteran catcher who has been non-tendered or released, like Dioner Navarro, George Kottaras, or John Baker the past two off-seasons. It remains unclear who will be available among those options, but should be a point of interest when the season ends. Another possibility is that the Cubs move into 2015 with either Baker or Lopez as Castillo’s alternate. If the free agent pool of catchers remains thin, the Cubs do not seek to pay big money for Martin or trade for an established catcher, the status quo may be the default result. That may also be the best option, if the Cubs genuinely believe Castillo is good enough to be the catcher moving forward. In any event, it is unlikely that we see much change in the position this off-season, with Welington Castillo being the incumbent with an inexpensive, (likely) left-handed, veteran compliment.