With the first pitchers and catchers workout completed, we can take a look back at a few storylines that are emerging in the early days of official Chicago Cubs spring training. You can check out Anno’s writeup and Andy’s preview for some of our thoughts, but my focus today is on the catcher situation.
The roster is going to be nearly the same as last year, although David Ross has retired and there are still some questions as to who will take the fifth rotation spot and how the bullpen will ultimately shape out. Last season, Miguel Montero, Ross, and Kyle Schwarber were supposed to share catching duties before Schwarber wrecked his knee in an early accident. Ultimately it turned out to be a tandem of rookie Willson Contreras and Ross, with Montero relegated to sporadic duty and serving as a bench bat before Schwarber returned as the designated hitter in the World Series. Even back in April when we were freshly shocked by the injury, Andy figured that Schwarber could come back to catch:
There is no good reason to believe, at this point, that Kyle Schwarber’s career will be derailed in any meaningful way by this. He will lose this time in his development as a player to rehabilitation, yes, but his knee and the surrounding musculature should be as strong as they’ve ever been once he completes the rehab process. If he wants to (which he likely would), Schwarber should even be able to return to playing catcher. This injury should not derail that from a physical standpoint.
Over the past couple days of media sound bytes, we learned that Willson Contreras is likely to be the primary catcher, and Montero will be his backup. We also now know that manager Joe Maddon intends to use Contreras as Jon Lester‘s personal catcher:
“The big thing there is the ability from Willson to be able to handle the running game,” Maddon said. “We’re going to have David mentor him a little bit regarding the thought, the process, the conversations he’s had with Jonny in the past and continue to move it forward from there. We feel really good about it. I think it’s a real naturally good matchup with Willson and Jon.
This makes great sense due to Contreras’ arm strength, athleticism, and Montero’s apparent inability to control the running game based on our observations from last year. The icing on the cake is that Schwarber has been medically cleared to catch, although whether he will do so during the regular season remains a mystery.
The Cubs emphasized Tuesday that Schwarber will participate in meetings with the catchers but that his work will be limited under the supervision of coach Mike Borzello.
However, this seems to be more of a “wait and see” approach, where they ensure that Schwarber can handle the position and not embarrass himself. The bat, at this point, is mightier than the defense, so Schwarber knows he will normally be deployed in the outfield. It does help to have a guy who regularly caught before as the emergency catcher instead of having to hope that Javier Baez can still handle it.
Knowing how much Maddon likes to keep his guys rested and fresh, my thought process is that Contreras will catch four games over a 7-game stretch, Montero catches the other two or three, and Schwarber rotates in every couple weeks for a non-Lester pitcher to give the other two a breather. This is sort of what we thought might happen last winter, when it was apparent Ross was going to retire and Montero was heading into his twilight. What do you think?
UPDATE 2/17: Now that everyone has reported to camp, the pitchers and catchers have already been at it for a couple days. Some notes:
1. Jon Lester has good reviews for his new battery mate:
#Cubs Lester doesn't think he'll have any problems with Contreras. "He wants to go out there and make you happy when he's behind the plate"
— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) February 17, 2017
2. Kyle Schwarber made it through his rounds of catching, and it also seems like Joe Maddon and Miguel Montero are at least on speaking terms. I think the post-World Series bruhaha was overblown so whatever, but Montero is well-liked by the players and the organization and would be a solid backup to Contreras. I know some believe he is expendable, but that’s a lot of money to eat for a DFA and not much potential improvement from the immediately-available in-house options.
— MBDChicago (@MBDChicago) February 17, 2017
The first full squad workout is on Saturday.
UPDATE 3/8: Bleacher Nation was able to transcribe a radio interview of Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. It appears that Epstein is leaving Schwarber’s catching future wide open, which is great news for us Schwarber fans and for Schwarber himself, as he has always expressed a desire to catch and improve as a game caller. Good stuff.