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.
Theo: “We’re not shopping (Castillo) at all. The second that the Montero news came out, we got calls from a number of teams about Wely.”
— Patrick Mooney (@CSNMooney) December 10, 2014
Theo: “We’ll always listen, just because it would be crazy not to listen. But we really like the way (Montero and Castillo) fit together.” — Patrick Mooney (@CSNMooney) December 10, 2014
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.