On the face of it, the Cubs seem to have their catching situation covered in both the short and the long term. Last year, Miguel Montero—the big-league incumbent—was the fifth most-valuable catcher in the game, as measured by WARP (3.92), and his 13.9 FRAA ranked fourth, defensively, at the position. Meanwhile, Willson Contreras, the Cubs’ top catching prospect, broke out in a big way last year, winning the Southern League batting title and slashing a monstrous .333/.413/.478 over a full minor-league season.
With Montero already signed to a big-league contract for two more years and Contreras about to debut at Triple-A after his breakout 2015, the team seems to be in the enviable position of not needing to worry all that much about one of the most important positions on the diamond. Not only that, Montero (whose job is more at risk the better Contreras does) raves about the guy who will eventually replace him:
@ronawsumb all star major league catcher
— miguel montero (@miggymont26) August 5, 2015
@2008_nbalottery @coolbearcjs wait until u see his defense and arm
— miguel montero (@miggymont26) August 5, 2015
So what’s the problem? Well, here’s the thing: Although he’s made enormous strides offensively, I’m pretty sure that Contreras’s 2016 season on defense is what’s going to define his success, and determine whether or not he succeeds in Chicago or, conversely, winds up getting traded away before he ever reaches Wrigley. Because as good as Contreras’s defense is right now, it’s just not good enough for this front office—at least not yet.
In order to understand what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at what Theo Epstein & Co. think of the catcher position by analyzing the moves they’ve made (and didn’t make) in the past couple of years.
Let’s start with the facts: Miguel Montero became the Cubs’ starting catcher last year after the front office realized the team was going to have a real shot at competing. They also brought in David Ross to serve as the backup/personal catcher to Jon Lester. Lastly, and in order to fit Ross and Montero onto the roster, Wellington Castillo was traded away to the Mariners early last season.
Below is a table of the top defensive catchers in the league since 2006 (the year Montero debuted in the major leagues)—do you think the Cubs front office was looking at it while they were making those decisions? Keep in mind, of course, that their top target last offseason was Russell Martin.
Top Defensive Catchers Since 2006 (by FRAA, and Castillo)
Starting to see a trend here? Let’s also take a look at the rest of the organizational depth chart at the position (here I’m stealing from Matt Trueblood’s earlier piece on catching):
|Player (Level)||CSAA Runs||EPAA Runs||TRAA Runs||SRAA Runs||Total|
|Kyle Schwarber (AA)||5.9||-1.1||0.0||-1.2||3.6|
|Willson Contreras (AA)||-6.4||1.3||0.0||-0.8||-5.9|
|Taylor Davis (AAA)||3.3||0.2||0.0||0.0||3.5|
|David Freitas (AAA)||10.7||-0.1||0.1||-0.7||10.0|
That number on the far left? That’s their framing number. There’s only one player on that table with a negative number, and it’s Contreras. Yes, this data based on minor-league numbers and other players have posted negative numbers and then improved on them… but still. This is something he’s going to need to work on.
And if he doesn’t? Well, let’s talk about Rafael Lopez. He was a 15th-round pick who briefly got to serve as a backup to Castillo in 2014. Lopez controlled the strike zone very well (14 walk rate at Triple-A that year) and seemed like an ideal backup catcher. He wasn’t a top prospect, but he got some good publicity and everyone seemed to like him.
Lopez wound up getting traded to the Angels for Manuel Rondon before the 2015 season. His career FRAA in the minor leagues since 2013? -49.1.
The Cubs’ front office clearly thinks that the catcher position is very important and any player that’s going to spend a significant amount of time there needs to very good at it. And that means they need to be good framers. Not just above average—they need to be elite at it.
Which brings us to Contreras and those below-average framing numbers of his. Has the front office decided that this guy is so good offensively (at least the 2015 version of him) that framing no longer matters and they’ll take what they get out of him? I think that’s unlikely.
Maybe they know something we don’t about Contreras and they’re confident they have the personnel to teach him this skill. After all, they’ve got two elite framers on the team as it is and two very good framers in the minors.
Maybe they’re going to put him behind the Hack Attack machine and use technology and repetition to make him a better catcher. As Cubs catching coordinator Tim Cossins said in that piece:
“Not a lot of people want to get back there and do it. It’s a desire-based position. You see guys who don’t connect with it, and you see guys who get immersed in it and end up loving it. Once you get a guy who falls in love with the position, then you have something you can work with.”
Maybe the Cubs really can teach catchers how to become better framers if they have the right aptitude for it, and that’s the plan with Contreras. All they need is a guy that loves to catch and is willing to put in the hard work. We’ve heard the front office rave about Kyle Schwarber’s makeup, and they’re just as complimentary about
“He’s always been a wonderful kid — passionate, big smile, hard worker. But there was more of a maturity level to him. He’s always going to play with passion — that’s just the way he is — but there was a different confidence that came with the maturity from Day 1 in spring training. And he carried that throughout the whole year.”
He’ll need that confidence, and that maturity, in 2016. As you watch him grow and develop this year, keep a close eye on his defense, not just his offense. That’s where the work is for Contreras this year. And it could define his future in this organization.
Lead photo courtesy Dan Hamilton—USA Today Sports.