Kyle Schwarber was never going to catch more than a couple dozen games this season. Even as the end of Spring Training revealed the Cubs’ plan to hitch Schwarber’s catching starts to Jason Hammel’s starts on the mound, the former Hoosier’s catching development—which some began to view with cautious optimism last season, a testament to Schwarber’s makeup—took a back seat to his vitality to a Cubs lineup full of thumpers, and to a defense with an outfield spot open. However, while Schwarber was never going to receive many starts behind the plate, his small share of games there was to be fairly important situationally for a team employing the aging Miguel Montero and the aged David Ross.
With those 25-30 starts now up for grabs, the Cubs’ catching configuration becomes a little hairier. The first consequence will be an increased workload for the retiring Ross, who sports a bat that Matt Trueblood recently called “anemic.” It remains to be seen exactly how often Joe Maddon will start Ross, but he took Schwarber’s start on Saturday behind the plate for Hammel, and he’s likely to see an uptick from the 46 games he started last season. Starting on days Jon Lester pitches and against the occasional lefty will grow into starting against perhaps most lefties, considering Montero’s poor track record versus southpaws, It will be hard to mask Ross’s bat, and if he hits similarly to his .203 TAv from 2015 in increased playing time, it will be tempting to find a non-Ross solution to the Schwarber-sized hole.
Ross’s age and bat prevent him from fulfilling even the short side of a platoon, which also has the effect of undue stress on the body—and, subsequently, bat—of Montero as the season wears on. Whereas Montero was previously slated to start approximately three-fifths of games, that percentage rises with Schwarber out. The 32-year-old Montero benefits from rest, which he saw more of in 2015 than at any point previously in his career, and also from facing right-handed pitching more often. Last year, the Cubs’ primary catcher saw a ten percent increase in plate appearances versus righties as a percentage of total PAs, as noted by Trueblood in another piece about Cubs’ catching. Both of those factors are now in jeopardy, and rational fear of another midseason nagging injury like last season’s thumb injury grows with increased playing time. More than most, Montero’s value to the team depends on health, and fatigue or injury could adversely impact his production on both sides of the ball.
As Montero’s fatigue sets in and Ross’s offensive vapidity becomes less tolerable with more plate appearances, the Cubs might look for a solution outside of their major league roster. Luckily, they won’t need to deal for a catcher; they have top prospect and 2015 Southern League batting champion Willson Contreras waiting in the wings at Iowa. Contreras was poised to be a September call up this season, spelling the Cubs’ incumbent catchers in preparation for the playoffs, but Schwarber’s absence might force the issue, and force Contreras into major-league duty sooner than previously anticipated.
Development concerns will weigh heavily on the decision that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer must make regarding Contreras and the major league catching situation, but if the Venezuelan backstop is hitting well at Iowa, a June or July major-league debut isn’t out of the question. (Service time issues are perhaps less of a concern, as the soon-to-be-24-year-old Contreras will be at least 30 by the time his free agency begins, were he to debut this season.) Contreras’s bat will play: he hit .333/.413/.478 for Tennessee in 2015, then .283/.361/.547 in the Arizona Fall League, and if he takes to Iowa in the same way, offensive concerns will drop even further. The question is, can Contreras be an acceptable defensive catcher in the majors this season? Baseball Prospectus’s new catching metrics rate Contreras as a poor framer, as compared to his Double-A peers. The prospect of Contreras quieting his catching mechanics within the course of a major league season enough to become an adequate framer is fairly dim. Compared to Schwarber’s ratings at the same level, and especially to the Cubs’ current catching tandem, Contreras would almost surely be a defensive downgrade this year.
If the Cubs don’t believe in Contreras’s defense enough to give him the nod this year, they might seek a solution outside of the organization. It’s too early to conceive of trade targets, though, and I am inclined to believe that the front office prefers an in-house solution. Should Contreras get called up midseason, expect a stint on the disabled list for one of either Montero or Ross, as carrying three catchers without secondary positions isn’t viable, as we saw at the beginning of last season. It’s unfortunate that Schwarber won’t be able to grow as a catcher this season, as Henry Druschel hoped, but his offensive production will find a replacement in the form of mixing and matching with the Cubs’ unparalleled depth, and the Cubs are unique in their ability to withstand an injury such as Schwarber’s. Behind the plate, however, the Cubs will need to reconfigure carefully, and the Cubs’ second-best prospect might be on the inside track to The Show.
Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports.