Very few people would confuse Tim Federowicz for Jonathan Herrera, at least up close. But if you look from a distance and squint a bit, you might just see the resemblance. Herrera, you’ll recall, spent the entire 2015 season on the Cubs’ big league roster despite making it into just 73 total games and starting 25. As if that weren’t bad enough, from the All-Star break to the end of the season Herrera made it into just 30 games—six starts—with only 44 plate appearances, hitting .182 with a .500 OPS and four extra-base hits.
With Herrera gone, no longer needed due to the presence of versatile infielders such as Javier Baez and Tommy La Stella, the third-string catcher Federowicz has found his way as the most puzzling name on the 25-man roster—likely spending the majority of each game attempting to adjust to Herrera’s remaining butt-groove on the bench in the Cubs dugout. The catching situation for the Cubs is nuanced, with lots of important questions but few answers currently available. But let’s roll things back to the beginning of the story with as little retcon as possible.
The Cubs started the season with three catchers on the roster for the second straight year, with Miguel Montero and David Ross as the regular backstops and Kyle Schwarber posing as the 2016 version of Welington Castillo. The only difference is that Schwarber was set to provide everyday value, playing in left field regularly and starting behind the plate when it was Jason Hammel’s turn in the rotation. Of course, Schwarber was lost for the year before Hammel even picked up a baseball and the Cubs moved forward with just Montero and Ross.
Federowicz wouldn’t make his first appearance with the Cubs until lower back issues would force Montero to the disabled list, with the 28-year-old being called up at the end of April and starting six games in the roughly two weeks that Miggy would miss. The oddity? When Montero returned, Federowicz wasn’t sent packing. Instead, he’s remained on the Cubs roster and has barely played at all for the last month.
In that time, the Cubs have designated outfielder Ryan Kalish and relief pitcher Neil Ramirez for assignment, retaining Kalish but losing Ramirez to the Milwaukee Brewers (who would later DFA Ramirez and lose him to the Minnesota Twins). They also would trade Arismendy Alcantara to the Oakland A’s to bring back Chris Coghlan, a move necessitated by La Stella heading to the disabled list. Through all of it, Federowicz lives on.
The most head-scratching part is the playing time split over the last month. In the 27 games the Cubs have played, Montero has started just 16 with Ross taking 11 starts—not just his usual every-fifth-day with starting pitcher Jon Lester. Federowicz has yet to start a game since Montero has returned, and even has just five trips to the plate—gathering one total hit, and posting overall numbers like -1.3 FRAA and -0.2 WARP so far this year. So why is he still on the Cubs roster, again?
One theory is that Montero is still not fully healthy, and that’s fueled by the fact that he hasn’t been playing on a regular basis. He’s hit just .212/.359/.365 since the return from injury, which has left a lot to be desired at the plate. His inability to throw out base-stealers has been somewhat maddening, as well, going 2-for-24 in that stat category. I think most that have watched the games regularly will agree that Montero just hasn’t looked right since returning.
But if he’s still hurt, why did he return so soon? The Cubs may have thought the combination of Federowicz and Ross wasn’t something they wanted behind the plate for a long period of time—mostly because Federowicz is not really all that good and Ross is too old to be catching more than two or three times a week. This would have necessitated Montero’s return as soon as he was able to play. But going into May 14th, the Cubs were eight games up on the Pittsburgh Pirates in the division—meaning that they probably could’ve risked letting Ross and Federowicz split time for a month or so. There seems to be more to this than meets the eye.
And that might have a lot to do with the Cubs 24-year-old catching prospect, Willson Contreras. While the bat of Contreras looks ready to be in the big leagues right now, the status of his receiving skills may have held him back from nabbing the call to Chicago. Here are a few telling quotes from manager Joe Maddon, discussing the decision to bring up Federowicz and not Contreras when Montero went to the DL:
“We just had to make a choice right there,” manager Joe Maddon said. “‘Fed’ was here for a reason. ‘Fed’ had a great spring training and you’re looking at the overall development of Contreras.
“In your mind’s eye, if you’re putting this whole thing together, with a guy like Willson, you’re probably going to wait until the second half, hopefully, to get him involved here. Or the latter part of the season to really get him here (and) get his feet on the ground.”
There’s a lot of dots to connect on this. With Montero out, Contreras not ready to catch in the big leagues, and the duo of Ross and Federowicz presenting a less-than-ideal long-term plan, the Cubs brought Montero back as soon as they could and kept Federowicz on the roster to ensure that Miggy could play in a limited role as long as he needed.
The hardest part about this theory is that it assumes that the Cubs are acting in a way that is wildly unfair to Montero. He went through a similar lower back problem back in 2013, which caused him to miss over a month of time. Is there no way to make it work, letting Montero heal—however long that may take—while still fielding a team you’re comfortable with? Even if Montero gave the green light on coming back, is it worth risking turning a month or so of recovery into a recurring or nagging injury? In a season where you’re on pace to win well over 100 games? I’d like to believe that the Cubs would be more cautious.
In the end, it appears that Montero’s playing time is beginning to become more steady. Maddon has had him start every non-Lester game (except for last night) going back to June 5th and Montero even hit a home run the other night, which are positive signs that Miggy’s arrow is trending upward again. There are still plenty of questions, including why Federowicz continues to fill Herrera’s butt-groove on the bench and whether or not the Cubs think Montero can handle a full season behind the plate. Is it possible that Federowicz hangs on with the Cubs until they feel Contreras is ready?
Too many questions, too few answers.
Lead photo courtesy Jasen Vinlove—USA Today Sports.