David Ross batted .176/.267/.252 for the 2015 Chicago Cubs. He’d only batted .184/.260/.368 for the 2014 Boston Red Sox, but the difference in the last figures in those two slash lines is everything. His .203 True Average in 2015 was the 10th-worst among players who went to bat at least 150 times, not quite Christhian Bethancourt or Mike Zunino bad, and certainly not Rene Rivera bad, but it’s at least fair to say that Ross was definitely not good at the plate last year. Baseball Reference appraised him at -0.1 WAR. FanGraphs was a hair more generous, crediting him with 0.1 WAR.
Of course, we have new systems at Baseball Prospectus, which credit catchers with context-adjusted contributions they make through framing, blocking, and throwing. Ross, a defensive specialist who rates well nearly across our catching leaderboards, and who was worth more as a defender in a backup role than Wilson Ramos was as a (defensively solid) full-time starter, got a boost from our shiny new numbers… all the way to a WARP of 0.2.
Ross is beloved as a team leader and mentor. He’s Jon Lester’s personal catcher. He’s a great defender at the most important defensive position on the diamond (save pitcher, of course). But there is a level of offensive anemia that can’t be (or can only in small part be) covered over by excellent defense and off-the-field contributions. Ross may be approaching that level. From the trade deadline through the end of the season last year, Ross had 68 plate appearances, struck out 26 times, drew three unintentional walks, and muscled up for two extra-base hits (both doubles). His slash line over that span: .161/.209/.194. In the playoffs, he added six more trips to the plate, walking twice, striking out twice, and going hitless.
Maybe Ross will adjust and survive for his final season in 2016, swinging less, swinging harder, something. It seems unlikely, though, after two seasons in deep decline at the plate, and with Father Time firmly against him. In case no offensive recovery is in the offing, the Cubs have added some contingency options this winter, in the forms of backup-profile guys like Tim Fedorowicz and David Freitas. More notably, though, they’ll also send Willson Contreras—the newly minted Best Catching Prospect in Baseball—to Triple-A Iowa to open the season. Here’s the $2.25-million question: If Ross remains the hitter he is now, or gets worse, how long will his relationships, reputation, framing mitt, and guaranteed salary keep him on the roster? And the follow-up question to that is just as crucial: Can Contreras cut it in the Majors by Father’s Day or so?
Recall that, in my dive into the Cubs’ catcher alternatives a couple of weeks ago, I found Contreras to be a below-average framer in the Southern League last year. We can’t say for sure that that means he won’t develop into a fine framer: the Cubs have excellent coaches and instructors, especially for their catchers, and the defensive tools for catchers peak much later than the defensive tools at other positions. What that would seem to say, though, is that Contreras was not nearly ready to catch in the big leagues in 2015. These advanced catcher stats, like virtually any other stat you can imagine, compare players to their peers, so a catcher who’s not framing as well as the average backstop in Double-A is very likely to be a worse framer in the Majors, two rungs up the competitive ladder. As Jeff Sullivan discussed this week at FanGraphs, it might also be that the baseline of average catcher framing performance in the Majors is rising, and if that’s true, it’s even more daunting a task to ask Contreras to quickly develop from a subpar minor-league catcher into an adequate big-league one.
You might be saying, “I wouldn’t want Contreras’s service-time clock to be started for a season spent in a backup role anyway,” or “It’d feel like a rush job to bring Contreras along that quickly anyway,” and both of those are valid sentiments. On the other hand, the Cubs are one of the best teams in baseball right now, and it would be a shame to find them stuck with a backup catcher who can no longer hit enough to justify even a solid glove, especially if that catcher were automatically slotted into the lineup every fifth day, without regard to matchups. It’s not hard to imagine Ross being bad enough that some other option has to be explored. ZiPS projects Ross for a .232 wOBA in 2016. Contreras projects to a .303. Freitas projects for .293. Federowicz projects for .276. Taylor Davis, who caught for Iowa for most of 2015, projects for .284. None of them are the defender Ross is, of course, and none are a trusted friend and long-time partner in crime to Lester (or others on the roster), but at some threshold, that can no longer matter, and 50-plus points of wOBA might just clear the bar.
Okay, so Contreras probably ought to stay in Iowa and get his reps for most of 2016. Freitas may be a great minor-league framer, but there’s no particular reason to believe he’d be an actual upgrade over Ross. Davis is an organizational player, and might not even be a catcher anymore, truthfully. Federowicz didn’t play at all in the Majors in 2015, and hasn’t had a real foothold there since 2013. There’s no good alternative to Ross, not really. Thus, I recommend just this one concession: the Cubs need to play Ross when it makes sense for the team, not whenever Lester is on the mound. After all, there are six years left on Lester’s deal, and Ross has at most one or two seasons left in him. It was great that Lester could have a familiar and capable companion to help him through his first season in the National League, and to ride out the crisis that was the throwing-to-first story early in the campaign. Eventually, he won’t have that.
If Ross can play only when the Cubs face a left-handed starter (and thus, would like to get Miguel Montero rest anyway), he’s a much more viable player. That plan would have the added, ancillary benefit of helping Lester get familiar with Montero (who’s under contract through 2017, though it’s not wholly clear he’ll be a Cub for that long), Schwarber, and yes, even Contreras. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that Contreras is built more like Ross than like either of the other Cubs backstops, and could learn a lot from Ross that might help him catch Lester well. Whatever happens, Ross’s story will be something to watch in 2016.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports.