It’s another slow news day/week/whatever, as the Chicago Cubs continue to sit around on their retooled roster and wait for spring training to begin. That means we will have to wait as well, and in the meantime, there’s a lot of perusing the internet for other blogs and comments.
One interesting comment that may have been out of context for the main conversation involved whether Cubs pitcher Jon Lester would need a personal catcher again. As we all know, David Ross caught the majority of Lester’s starts in 2015, and Lester and Ross have a preferential working relationship although Lester has been successful with other catchers before. Ross, of course, was responsible for a couple of nifty moments from last season, but despite his reputation as a strong clubhouse leader and teammate, he’s pretty bad with the bat now. The defense is probably what we focus on, however, and Ross was a strong catcher in 2015 by all indications. So it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Lester and Ross continue to pair up in 2016.
The problem is that we have to think past 2016. Every indication, including from the man himself, is that David Ross will retire once his contract ends after the 2016 season. Miguel Montero, who has caught Lester before and it wasn’t a devastating failure, is likely gone when his contract expires after the 2017 season. So now comes the problem with how the Cubs will replenish their catching corps to accommodate the rotation, since Jon Lester’s contract potentially runs through the 2021 season if he’s not bought out of the final season. Therefore, the Cubs have to explore phasing in one catcher during the 2016 season to replace Ross, and potentially a second catcher to replace Montero as well if he’s traded before his contract expires.
The replacement is unlikely to come from this year’s non-roster invitees, although Tim Federowicz is considered to be a decent defensive catcher. Taylor Davis is more of a “spot” catcher since he plays multiple positions, so I doubt the Cubs can count on that. It’s no secret that the Cubs are sorely lacking in catching depth, and I presume this will be a strong focus for the organization going forward. If we look at the major prospect lists coming out, only Willson Contreras shows up in the top 100 as one of the most exciting prospects to come out of the Cubs system since all the major graduations of 2015.
Speaking of 2015, Kyle Schwarber will continue working on his catching on the side in addition to developing as a better defensive left fielder. The reviews suggest that Contreras still needs some seasoning to polish his defensive game, but the bat, like with Schwarber, is going to carry him forward. Schwarber had been used sparingly at catcher last year, catching the final innings of a loss against Cleveland in his MLB debut, and mostly paired with back end guys like Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks. The reports and my (admittedly amateur) eye test suggest that while Schwarber seems an adequate receiver, he may have trouble with things like blocking pitches and handling wicked stuff from the aces. The only other catcher that even shows up on Cubs prospect radar is Victor Caratini, who John Sickels believes can be a strong defender but is a bit light with the stick. It seems like a sharp drop off before we even get to Cael Brockmeyer, who had what seemed to be a weird season on offense after being bounced all over the system in 2015.
There has been plenty of talk about catcher framing over the past couple seasons, and it would seem that the acquisitions of Montero and Ross play into that philosophy. However, with talk of MLB considering (among other things) raising the bottom of the strike zone, and umpires possibly realizing that their work is being better scrutinized, there is a feeling that, going forward, catcher framing may not be as important as in the past. That suggests that the main thing the next guys up, Contreras and Schwarber (who’s already up, but you know what I mean!), will have to work on is not letting the ball bounce past them. They have a season-plus left of mentorship from Montero and Ross to get some pointers, so here’s hoping they make the most of it. Otherwise, we will have to keep our eyes on catcher trades and signings, starting this trade deadline and next offseason…