Fatigue, Platoons, and a Prospect: Cubs Catching Sans Schwarber

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.

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8 comments on “Fatigue, Platoons, and a Prospect: Cubs Catching Sans Schwarber”


The main thing about Contreras is that if you bring him up you definitely have to play him at catcher more than Schwarber’s allocation would have been. That would cut Ross back to mostly Lester and games here, but he’s going to have to take games from Montero as well. I feel that way mainly because his 2015 was really a breakout, so you want him to get enough reps to both confirm he’s the real deal and continue his development.
The reality is AAA is probably the best spot for him for most of the season unless his combination of bat+defensive development lead you to a point of not being able to leave him in Iowa. I don’t see that happening…….yet (though a small sample size 1.129 OPS can grab your attention). Hopefully another injury won’t force Maddon/Epstein to make a decision, especially in the short term.


Zack, plz look up the truth on Montero’s splits b4 repeating the party/Joe line on it.

Montero OPSd .786 vs LHP last yr–better than he did vs RHP (.749).

Ross OPSd an incredibly obnoxious .518 last yr as a 38 yr old–the 2nd-worst mark in all MLB among those w/ 180 PA; do you expect better at 39?

Never mind even that: the point is that, like Montero, his splits were also REVERSE: an intolerable .549 RHP/a send-to-hell .440 LHP.

Yes, that means MONTERO OPSd 346 PTS HIGHER VS LHP.

Think last yr was a fluke? Montero’s life OPS vs LHP is .657; yes, that is 217 pts better than Ross’ mark last yr.

There’s more: guess who else OPS’s exactly .657 vs LHP in his life? Heyward. Wanna sit him? Wanna sit him for Mark Belanger, better yet?

Plz help me get the truth out there–this is the darkest lie in Chicago sports. I can’t get Ross outta here soon enough, but maybe if sports writers start getting these basic facts out there, we can get Ross off the field the second Lester departs.

BTW, Ross is 0/3 throwing out runners; Montero the exact same.

Vote Contreras/Schwarber ’17.

Zack Moser

First, Ross is gone after this season, so your hope that he’s gone as soon as Lester leaves doesn’t make any sense.

Second, Montero had 56 plate appearances versus lefties last season, rendering his splits that you cite essentially meaningless. His career numbers against lefties aren’t good.

Even if we conclude that Montero does hit lefties better than Ross, what do you suppose the Cubs do about it? Montero can’t play every day, and is actually a helluva lot more effective when he gets rest. Ideally he gets 3/5 of the starts or so. If you read the piece, you’ll know what the consequences of this are. Ross is much better defensively than Contreras at this point, so while Contreras replacing Ross would be a large offensive upgrade, there’s significant defensive value that the Cubs would be losing. That bears consideration, especially with regard to Contreras’s defensive development, if you believe he’ll be the catcher of the future.

Also, if you’re nitpicking splits, Heyward hit closer to a .270 True Average versus lefties last season, and he’s young enough to still change his approach and improve. And again, his defensive value outweighs his poor career numbers versus lefties.

Maybe if you stopped your crusading against the Cubs’ senior catcher for one second, you would see the consequences of a Ross-less Cubs.


Meant Ross needs to be out of a game as soon as Lester is.

Montero’s splits are far from meaningless, and they’re far from “not good”–unless Heyward’s are, too. That’s why I cited the life numbers. And if a .660 OPS is “not good”, do tell what .440 is in your book.

You also assume Contreras is worse defensively, based on
…umm…the fact Contreras has twice the arm?

It’s cuz of those ignorant of the data that I’ve given up hope of getting Ross out before Oct ’16; I’ll also not fight him catching Lester–that’s 32 days of rest for Montero. But when someone wants to tell me Ross has better splits or, on an ancillary point, is better defensively than Contreras, I vociferously object to getting even more crap jammed down my throat.

Zack Moser

If you had read Matt’s piece on catching linked above, you would know that Contreras was a poor framer last year at Tennessee, a factor of much greater importance to overall catcher defense than throwing arm. Ross is very good in the more important facets of catcher defense, and has the trust of the pitching staff already. This is demonstrably true, in terms of stats and scouting.

And you failed to address the thesis of my article yet again: if Ross doesn’t get more starts with Schwarber gone, who is? Montero absolutely can’t handle more, as fatigue will set in and he’ll be ineffective like he was surrounding his injury last season. The Cubs’ FO clearly believes that Contreras needs more time to develop both his bat and his glove, and I doubt he gets the call before midseason, and even then he’ll only get it if Montero is struggling or unhealthy. Ross doesn’t have better splits. Ross is a bad hitter. But Montero can’t start 130 games, and Contreras isn’t knocking at the door yet.

Context, friend.


Zack, here’s my context: I love this site and its writers, for u guys usually get the numbers right. Your numbers on the splits, or at least the conclusion reached (Ross neefs to start vs. LHP) were wrong. Am I limited in response to your thesis, or can I comment on anything you said?

Montero can’t catch 130? I hope he can–that’s what we signed him to do–and that’s what the guy we threw away to get Ross


…Castillo, is poised to do in AZ. (Not sure if he’ll again lead NL Cs in HR, as he did last yr in half a season).

As for pitch framing, it is highly overrated (Sal Perez one of worst last yr) and also untrustworthy (LuCroy one of best in ’14, one of worst in ’15). Besides, it’s 1 PITCH–NOT A BASE. Accordingly, things like Es, PB, WP preventions, and CS are all more important–not to mention the other half (maybe more) of a C’s importance– hitting.

To that end, and addressing one of your thesis points, Contreras is more than ready; between last yr’s bat title at AA, continued dominance in the AFL, ST, and at AAA this yr, the bat is already there. You of course are right about familiarity with the staff, but that’s an automatic. As for gunning down runners, you may not believe it, but run the numbers: of every C I’ve studied, his MLB CS% is completely correlational to his minor league CS%–usually within a percentage pt.

I never wish for an athlete to get hurt, but one of the best things that happened to the ’15 Cubs was Montero’s injury; if either Montero or Ross–the latter so much the weaker–goes down, we are actually sitting pretty–again.


BTW, Zack, not only did I read Matt’s 1st piece you cited, as well as Henry’s, but I commented on both–favorably.

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