Cubs Add Aging Catcher with History of Back Problems

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The Cubs, today, agreed to take on a 31 year old catcher, coming off the two worst years of his career for the next three years, at an average value of over $13M per year…and in true form, Cubs fans seem overjoyed by it because Miguel Montero is a name brand catcher.

The reasons why we seem so pleased with the move are superficial.

“Montero hits right handed pitching well.”  
“Montero is a really good pitch framer.”
“Montero is not Welington Castillo.”

The truth is, Montero does hit right-handed pitching better than Welington Castillo right now.  But Montero’s numbers against those pitchers have been trending downward…since 2011.  2013 was a significant drop, which is likely linked to the lower back injury he spent time on the disabled list for, but in a “healthy” 2014, he did not rebound to anywhere near the level he had been performing before.  At age 31, it would be silly to think he is ever as good as he was at his physical peak.  He may be an upgrade over Castillo here at this point in time, but there would be no surprise if that changes very soon.

The pitch framing thing is a valid point.  Montero is good at it.  Very good.  Castillo is not.  The difference and how much it really means, though, is debatable.  Catcher defense is very difficult to measure, in general, so placing all of our eggs in the framing basket, when it boils down to one “extra strike” per 8.28 innings, as it did for Montero is 2014, according to Baseball Prospectus, seems to be a bit rushed.  In the last two years, Montero has accounted for -12 Defensive Runs Saved, -3 runs above average in throwing out runners, and -.3.7 runs above average in blocking pitches.  Welington Castillo has accounted for positive values in all three of those categories over the last two years, at +24 defensive runs saved, +17 runs above average throwing out base runners, and +6.1 runs above average in blocking pitches.  Again, catcher defense metrics are not perfect.  But where Welington Castillo is belittled by Cubs fans who adore the idea (and now reality) of Montero, he is clearly outpacing Montero in other places.  To call Montero a defensive upgrade, as has been spoken about by some on Twitter is laughably wrong.  He is not.  And it would be a safe bet he is never again the defensive catcher Castillo is right now.

The last point makes this point…some people seem to be associating Castillo with being part of a bad team that was going through a rebuilding process.  It seems like he is regarded as a stop gap piece, like a Ryan Sweeney or Cody Ransom.  The reality is, his 15.3 defensive runs above average were only exceeded in 2014 by Salvador Perez and Jonathan Lucroy.  He was 12th among catchers with 400 plate appearances in fWAR.  And his 13 HRs were the same output as Montero.

There are other considerations to keep in mind when evaluating this trade.  The first is the $40M remaining on Montero’s deal.  As an aging player who has had back injuries and plays a demanding position, this seems like a poor use of the payroll flexibility that Theo Epstein has worked hard to accumulate.

The other consideration is what actually happens to Welington Castillo.  Keeping both Montero and Castillo seems to make the most sense, since Castillo’s cost is low and he is a proven commodity.  It is not a surprise to hear Theo reveal that teams have come calling about Castillo because catchers are in scarce supply.  Castillo’s value is high right now.  But if the Cubs are serious about competing, it would behoove them to keep Castillo as an insurance policy against injury or ineffectiveness in their very expensive new player in the back end of his career. Montero does check a box that the Cubs were looking to add this off-season…he is considered by former teammates to be a very good clubhouse presence.  In that regard, he becomes a shorter term, and cheaper alternative to Russell Martin, which can make losing Martin to the Blue Jays feel a lot better when they’re paying Martin $20M in 2018.

Fairness, in either direction, means waiting to judge the trade by the outcome.  Acquiring Montero is not a success on December 9.  It will be deemed a success or failure over the next three seasons.  That could be longer if Jeferson Meija matures into a front-line starter beyond the length of Montero’s contract.  If both work out, it could just be the cost of business.  In the near term, there are a number of reasons to be guarded about adding Montero.  His last two seasons have not been his best, and lower back injuries are the kind of thing that come back…especially in catchers.  Maybe the Cubs recognize that and intend to mitigate the effects by splitting time between him and Castillo so minimize the wear on his body, while getting all of the benefits of what he adds in veteran presence in the clubhouse.

This is a puzzling move.  One that can go horrifically wrong.  Or be a redemption story for Montero’s career.  For a team making a move to compete, though, it is a risk.  At an average of $13.33M per year, Montero is here to stay, because if he continues to regress, it will be impossible to unload him.


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About Andy

Sometimes I write stuff about the Cubs. Sometimes it's even good. But don't get your hopes up. Basically, my writing is like the pre-2016 Chicago Cubs.

14 Replies to “Cubs Add Aging Catcher with History of Back Problems”

  1. Finally! Someone that cuts through the BS. Thank you for that. I know Mejia is only a low level prospect right now, but he looks pretty damn good (to me anyway – which means absolutely nothing).

  2. Pingback: Baseball Blogs Weigh In: Orioles, Angels, Montero – MLB Trade Rumors

  3. Written by someone who has not played at a competitive level and not been a catcher. Montero is a better framer and is a LH’d bat and probably a 80-100 game catcher as to what a fan can see. What is not seen is the pre game preparation and execution during the game. Yes these are unmeasured intangibles but they are real. Castillo is of a long line offensive oriented Cub catchers. The point of Montero is not just this year but being there to mentor Schwarber down the line.

  4. I understand playing devils advocate here, but you really should go back and look at Welly’s stats vs RHP in 2014. .216 /.279 / .352 for an OPS+ of 82 over 400+ PAs! That screams need. The Cubs tried to get Martin, and had to settle for the second best option. The Cubs will likely still do a lefty/righty platoon (as they love to platoon) and this will hopefully increase the overall production from the C position. That is the point of the move.

    However, it will be interesting to see if the Cubs sign David Ross to be Lester’s personal C.

  5. Montero is a flawed catcher, as most Cub fans recognize and as you also note. Who, though, could the Cubs have added after Martin headed to Toronto? It is possible that Ross can still be had, but that does not moot the need to get Montero, who was clearly the best catcher that was on the market with regard to the Cubs’ needs. He is preferable to sticking with Castillo alone. If you were Theo, who would you have signed?

  6. The Cubs have a lot of extra money to spend and an opportunity to upgrade at a position that was awful last year. Assuming they don’t trade castillo, you have gone from castillo/baker to castillo/montero. The reason this works is because he is not blocking anyone for 3 years and because the deal is short term, there is not much risk.

    More realistically, they will probably be signing David Ross to catch for Lester and the combination of Castillo and Ross does not match up well and Ross/ Montero does.

    Mejia is at least 4 years away from the majors and if he is any good then the Cubs can just sign him in the future, just as they would have had to resign him if he was on the team anyways.

  7. I’m going to address all of the points made in one simple reply…

    No, I never played catcher, because I am left-handed. I pitched. None of that is as important as the fact that outside of this hobby, I spend my days in sports medicine settings. My overwhelming concern is the lower back injury on the guy who’s in his 30s and has a job that requires him to squat and twist for a living. I also noted that keeping Castillo and Montero could provide them the best option going forward, in addition to Montero’s clubhouse value. Furthermore, Welington Castillo’s pregame preparation has been praised, without prompting, by both pitchers and the past coaching staffs, and since he was the primary catcher for a team who actually pitched pretty well, his prep probably worked… so thanks for playing, Ivy Walls.

    As far as adding another catcher, bringing on David Ross to pair with Castillo would not have bothered me. It was obvious to anyone who watched that Castillo wasn’t a good offensive player last year. My points are that he provides the most value in the place where catchers need to provide the most value…in his defense. He is an elite defensive catcher. Pitch framing be damned (because there is a reason it is not part of WAR calculations, yet), Castillo is the better of the two behind the plate. And offensively, Montero is in a years long backslide. He’s better right now (which I noted), but he is not getting any younger, and Castillo will not be counted on to be a primary offensive contributor with Bryant, et al coming up.

    My point was, and remains, that this move was a serious gamble. One, because Montero is regressing and there is no metric that says otherwise. And two, because he is owed a lot of money and the Cubs simply cannot afford to miss wildly with a move like this if they choose to compete. It would be foolish to deal Castillo for those reasons. If Montero busts (which is a very real possibility), Castillo is a starting quality catcher…which is why Theo’s phone rang when they acquired Miggy.

  8. Thanks for your “defense,” which, in its softened tone, suggests regret about having begun the article by creating a straw man (that is, the claim that most Cubs fans are overjoyed with the arrival of Montero) and then chiding those same fans as “superficial”). Unless you are auditioning for a job on the am radio station at the low end of the dial in Chicago, perhaps you would be better served by showing your readers some degree of respect.

    • I do believe BTI addressed some of your points, the perceived “disrespect” was actually towards the commenter who said his opinion didn’t matter because he never played catcher. Sorry if you were offended due to collateral damage, but I would say that comment by said commenter was out of line.

    • I made a statement based on the reaction I had seen when Montero was acquired. The overwhelming majority was Montero as a massive upgrade over Castillo. I disagreed and gave reasons why.

      I also never called any person superficial. “The reasons why we seem so pleased with the move are superficial.” That was a comment on people looking at readily available numbers from last season and his career averages, without looking at trends and outliers.

      With that, I accept your apology.

  9. This is a good move for the Cubs because:
    1. As a Dbacks fan and watching Miggy a lot, Gibson used him too much over the years. When he got more rest, he played to a higher level. I suspect Theo knows this and plans on Wellington and Miggy splitting time and helping both catchers excel.
    2. Wellington’s weakness is what Miggy is a pro at. Pitch framing is where Montero stands out. Not only will the pitching staff benefit from more strikes, but Wellington can learn and improve with he new backstop-mate.
    3. The Cubs paid for the trade in money, not prospects. As a Dbacks fan, I had hoped they would throw in some money for trades and receive premium prospects back. Instead, the Cubs won the trade because all that was needed is money for a team that should have plenty. No high level prospects went to the desert. If Miggy goes down with a bad back (always possible with a catcher) Chicago is just out money, they did not give up and of their future to get a valuable piece for the current club.

    • Good points. I thought Castillo could have gotten the same things from Henry Blanco, who the Cubs just added to their coaching staff. I agree that Montero has been used too much, which is why I am hoping the Cubs don’t move on from Castillo and do go to a true two catcher system. I think the point of my piece here is that we’ve been collectively eager to declare the Cubs a winner in this trade in December, but we won’t actually know that for some time. Montero is not a sure bet, anymore. As much as I would like him to pan out as a Cubs fan, there are a lot of reasons why this could be a bust.

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