While the Cubs will head into the 2017 season with their lineup looking much the same way as it was for the bulk of last season, there’s still some intrigue about certain aspects of the roster. Centerfield is an interesting situation, and the return of Kyle Schwarber has obviously provided shiploads of buzz about of left field. Our focus here, though, is on the situation behind the plate where there will definitely be change from the previous season.
The Cubs went into the 2016 season with Miguel Montero and David Ross behind the dish, with Kyle Schwarber expected to spell the two on a semi-regular basis. Plans obviously changed due to Schwarber’s April injury, but Montero spent some time out as well, which is part of the reason he only appeared in 86 games. This left the position in a bit of flux, with Tim Federowicz getting a bit of time in May and the eventual callup of Willson Contreras.
Contreras was able to bring some stability to the position, forming a trio with Ross and Motero for the remainder of the year. His versatility allowed the other two to slot in with regularity.
Because of Ross’s retirement, the 2017 season will feature Contreras and Montero as the 1-2 backstop punch for the Cubs.
But the catching picture beyond that duo is somewhat murky. Ross, Montero, Schwarber, Contreras, and Federowicz gave the Cubs a wealth of options in case of emergency last year, and they were able to use their catching depth to the fullest extent. This year, should something go wrong with Contreras or Montero, the solutions are a bit more unclear.
Few things get people as fired up about this Cubs team as when the subject of Kyle Schwarber’s defense emerges. We know he’s going to play the outfield almost exclusively. However, having been cleared to resume catching, it would appear that the Cubs are set to roll him out there behind the plate a day or two per week. That news came as something of a surprise given the Cubs’ apparent intentions of easing him back into things coming off of that knee injury, but with the “all clear” from the medical side, he’ll return to the position that he’s fought so hard to maintain.
From a development standpoint, there’s still a whole lot to be worked out in Schwarber’s defensive game. His footwork is rough and it will be interesting to see if there’s any compensation there to protect his recovered knee during game action. His hands aren’t great, even if his arm strength could play well from back there. And we know how much framing and blocking are taken into account, with both being additional aspects for him to work on.
Of course, none of this should come as any surprise. We know that Kyle Schwarber’s defense, really from any perspective, is a work in progress. Schwarber continues to be vocal about his desires to catch, however, and given his insanely committed work ethic, it isn’t difficult to imagine him demonstrating marked improvement back there as the season wears on.
It’s extremely difficult to see the Cubs moving forward with any sort of Schwarber catching plan that involves him behind the dish more than a maximum of a day or two per week. At this point, his role as a catcher is about continued development but also maintaining long-term health. Even if something should happen with Contreras or Montero, it seems likely that the Cubs stay this course with Schwarber as a third catcher primarily posted up in the outfield.
Cub fans have an interesting relationship with emergency backup catchers in the past few seasons. John Baker was appreciated more as a personality and now more so as a member of the front office. Taylor Teagarden and Tim Federowicz, however, were not exactly revered players in each of their brief times with the club. At the same time, each proved a necessary presence if even for the slightest of stints. Carlos Corporan will be that guy this year.
A journeyman of three teams in the past calendar year, Corporan spent last spring with the Yankees before making stops in Tampa Bay and Miami, but he hasn’t appeared in Major League Baseball since 2015. Corporan provides virtually nothing offensively, but after consecutive years of Teagarden and Federowicz, it’s not as if we’re to expect anything different from emergency depth catchers. As is the case with any player in that type of role, his value lies in his defense.
Not that he’s an overwhelmingly impressive defensive catcher either, though. He’s an average framer, at best, as well as an average blocker, and his arm leaves a lot to be desired as well. As such, he likely won’t serve in any capacity other than that emergency role. At the same time, he’ll need to be added to the 40-man roster in order to be catching relief, so it will be interesting to see how the front office makes that work. Of course, there’s a chance that a young catcher in Iowa could be called upon in case of emergency.
Caratini is an interesting quantity. He’s obviously in need of more seasoning, but I’m probably higher on him than some. Offensively, he presents another potentially above average option from behind the plate. His performance in Double-A last year featured a .376 on-base percentage and a .290 TAv across 480 plate appearances. A high contact guy with a decent approach, there could be more to his game, particularly in when it comes to his power. But for now, he’s a gap hitter with a line drive stroke. Defensively, he remains a work in progress. Like Schwarber, he has the arm for the position, but lacks certain skills otherwise. Various scouting reports over the past couple of seasons have noted his footwork and blocking skills as potential areas for growth, but have him as a respectable framer.
Regardless of the scouting reports, Caratini is a player that has made strides in his development and someone we’ll learn a lot about when he makes the transition to Triple-A Iowa this season. Should something happen that becomes a longer term issue, a strong offensive showing and developing defense could force the Cubs’ hand in the right situation. If not, he’s wonderful insurance as a No. 5 guy and could figure heavily into the plans behind the plate for the 2018 season.
So, on the whole, what exactly do the Cubs have behind Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero? Probably more depth than we realize. It’s hard to count on Kyle Schwarber too heavily with those depth options, but he’s a spot starting option at the position. Factor in an emergency catcher in Corporan and a young option who likely isn’t too far off in Caratini and it wouldn’t appear that this situation isn’t any less intriguing than it was last season.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Kartozian—USA Today Sports