As the Chicago Cubs prepare to head out to spring training in Mesa, Arizona, Windy City Hardball is previewing each of the positions on the field for the team (and pretending we’re heading to Phoenix ourselves to enjoy the warm weather).
We get things started today with the catcher position.
The veteran catcher is not only a solid hitter that will likely hit in the fifth or sixth spot in the Cubs’ order this season, but he is also one of the absolute best defensive catchers in the game. Last season, Wellington Castillo was statistically the second-worst catcher in baseball in terms of framing pitches, costing the Cubs 24.3 runs on the season according to the good folks at Stat Corner. Montero, on the other hand, was baseball’s best catcher at pitch-framing, saving the Diamondbacks 24 runs.
While Montero may not hit as well as Castillo (and that is frankly a big if, because he may well hit better), the fact that he gives the Cubs a net boost of 48 runs just by being able to frame pitches is a HUGE asset to have.
At this point, it seems unlikely that Castillo will remain in the picture at catcher for the Cubs, considering that the team went out and acquired David Ross in free agency. The catcher was Jon Lester’s personal catcher with the Boston Red Sox, and even though his numbers have been declining a bit (he had a -0.16 WAR last season, and his slash numbers have been declining as well), the fact that he brings leadership and veteran experience to the locker room is a big asset for the Cubs.
Ultimately, the odds are that Castillo will be dealt to keep Ross on the roster, but the Cubs could get a decent bullpen arm or a couple of decent prospects in exchange for him via trade.
As of this moment, we have the Cubs’ catchers ranked as their fourth-best position on the big-league roster. If they were going to stick with Castillo as the back-up, they may have gone up a spot due to the offensive improvement, but having Montero and Ross as the two guys behind the dish is still a pretty solid tandem, and Montero’s defense is something that is really going to save the Cubs some runs this season.
The Cubs have one guy who could potentially be a game-breaker at the plate in Kyle Schwarber, but they don’t really have a stud defender behind the dish. Schwarber could potentially end up as the catcher of the future, as Montero has three years left on his current deal, but odds are the team will want to move him to the outfield to let him focus on his hitting.
Outside of Schwarber, there are a couple other prospects to look out for. Victor Caratini is one guy that we’ve been impressed by, and he is a really smart player all around. Mark Zagunis is also a guy that could potentially be an outfield/catcher hybrid, but he’s fast as all get-out and draws tons of walks, making him an attractive option as well.
The Chicago Cubs have generated plenty of buzz already during this offseason, with the signing of Joe Maddon serving as notice that they are serious about becoming contenders sooner rather than later. Their rumored interest in pitchers like Cole Hamels and Jon Lester has only made those notions gain steam, and they are clearly looking to spend some money in free agency.
One player who has reportedly been on the Cubs’ radar has been catcher Russell Martin. In 2014 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Martin hit 11 home runs and drove in 67 runs for the Buccos, and his .290 batting average was his highest since his second year in the league when he hit .293 for the Los Angeles Dodgers. His OPS was .832, and he eclipsed the .400 mark in on-base percentage for the first time in his career.
According to Ken Rosenthal, the Cubs are not only in on Martin, but they are also the “clear frontrunners to sign him”:
Executives involved in bidding for Russell Martin believe #Cubs are clear front-runner. Deal expected to be in four-year, $64M range.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 17, 2014
The Cubs’ interest in Martin shouldn’t be all that surprising, given their weak stable of talent at the position. Wellington Castillo had a decent 2014 for the Cubs, with 13 home runs and 46 RBI to his credit, but his OBP (.296) and slugging percentage (.389) lag well behind what Martin brings to the table for a potential suitor.
The veteran’s defense and leadership would also be welcomed in the Cubs’ clubhouse, but of course it would cost the Cubs a pretty penny to acquire him. Reports out have suggested that Martin could command in the neighborhood of $13 million in salary, and he’s reportedly asked for a five year contract.
According to Rosenthal, the Cubs would come very close to those demands with their offer. A four-year, $64 million deal would pay him above his asking price annually at the cost of one fewer year, and while there is certainly some risk to signing a guy to a long-term deal as he turns 32 years old, it could be a good move for the Cubs.
Castillo is a solid catcher, but Martin would represent a significant upgrade at the position. It would also help ease the pressure on Kyle Schwarber, the 2014 first round pick that is arguably the Cubs’ top catching prospect. Schwarber is still at least two years away from making an impact in the big leagues, and having Martin around to help him out in spring training and to play the position while he’s working his way through the minors could be a big boost for the Cubs.