Chicago Cubs: Breaking down the team’s catching options

Aug 1, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras (right) and starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks (left) celebrate their victory over the Miami Marlins at Wrigley Field. Cubs won 5-0. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Cubs lost a veteran backstop this offseason in David Ross. Heading into 2017, who is the best choice to handle the team’s pitching staff on a regular basis?

A career-long backup catcher, David Ross stepped into the spotlight in a big way with the Chicago Cubs last season. He was not only Jon Lester‘s personal battery mate but helped lead the team in tough times.

Taking both Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras under his wing, Ross left the dugout as a champion. Although he stayed with the organization in the front office, his departure changes how the Cubs will set the lineup on a daily basis.

Conteras, heading into his first full big-league season, appears to be the front-runner for the starting gig. Veteran Miguel Montero, entering his last season under contract, will also see plenty of action.

The big question mark is Schwarber, who made a historical comeback last fall after sustaining a devastating knee injury last April. Will he catch at all? If so, how will the Cubs control the workload on his surgically-repaired knee?

Each man brings his own assets to the position. Schwarber and Contreras both showcase powerful offensive skills, while Montero has years of experience behind the plate. Is Joe Maddon willing to hand the reins over to Contreras full-time after leaning on him in the postseason or will he rely on Montero to help guide and coach the young duo in his last season?

Oct 1, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Hector Rondon (56) is congratulated by catcher Kyle Schwarber (right) after defeating the Reds 5-3 at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

 Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

One question looms for Cubs’ young slugger

Health.

When Chicago Cubs fans talk about Kyle Schwarber, this seems to be where the conversation always ends. Sure, his postseason performance was the stuff of legend. (Remember, he hit .412 in the World Series after missing the entire season).

But many, including San Francisco Giants’ catcher Buster Posey, believe a return to catching won’t be so easy for the Cubs’ youngster.

“For the year or two after my ankle injury, there was maintenance after every game and spring training workout, whatever it may be. I’m feeling pretty good (now) and can back off it a little bit.”

From what we’ve seen with Schwarber, easing back into things isn’t how he works. He attacks his rehabilitation work aggressively, doing whatever it takes to be on the field with his teammates.

In 2015, the now-23-year-old rated, by most measures, as a sub-par defensive catcher. He caught just 18 percent of would-be base stealers – a far cry from the 28 percent league average. He also came in with a minus-3 defensive runs saved above average, according to Baseball Reference.

Now, to play devil’s advocate, he caught just 21 games that season. He’s matured and grown with another year of tutelage of the catching craft. But, at the end of the day, Kyle Schwarber will be in the lineup for his bat. Even if he’s behind the dish, Chicago isn’t expecting Gold Glove-caliber defense from the Indiana University standout.

Keeping him behind the plate frees up a regular spot for another regular, perhaps Ben Zobrist, in left field. Meanwhile, it also keeps Schwarber’s powerful bat in the lineup on a daily basis.

It will all come down to health. If Chicago has any doubt at all, then Kyle Schwarber may very well have caught his last game at the big league level.

Oct 18, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Travis Wood (37) talks with catcher Miguel Montero (47) during the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game three of the 2016 NLCS playoff baseball series at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Can Montero rebound to re-establish himself?

When the Chicago Cubs dealt for Miguel Montero, the move represented a clear upgrade at the catcher position.

A two-time All-Star with notable pop in his bat, the former Arizona backstop brought experience to the North Side. But, since his arrival, his offensive contributions have waned and his role has reduced with each passing season.

His best career year came back in 2011 when he smacked 18 home runs and drove in 86 runs, a career-high.

In both 2011 and 2012, he averaged 4.1 WAR. Since joining Chicago, he failed to hit even two wins above replacement, actually falling into negative measures last season.

Last year, he appeared in a mere 86 games for Chicago, due largely in part to the team carrying three catchers on the big league roster. Joining Ross and Contreras, Montero seemed to become more of a mentor and less of a daily contributor.

His struggles at the plate didn’t help his case. In 2016, he batted just .216 – the worst mark of his career. Of course, he had several notable game-winning knocks, but his overall body of work left much to be desired.

Defensively, he trended downward. He caught just 11 percent of attempted base stealers, coming in a -1 defensive runs saved above average. Other metrics suggest that he’s a solid pitch framer, but with how easily teams are running on him, he’s far from an elite defensive catcher.

He’s heading into his age-34 season and his best years are behind him. He’s no longer a reliable starting catcher, but rather a mentor for younger talents on the roster.

Nov 2, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Chicago Cubs catcher David Ross (3) comes into the game for catcher Willson Contreras (right) in the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians in game seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

 Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The balanced asset – Willson Contreras

Bringing energy and athleticism to the catcher position, Willson Contreras represents the brightest hope the Cubs’ have seen behind the dish in years.

Ranking as above-average in pitch-framing, blocking and throwing, he’s the best defensive option Chicago features heading into the 2017 campaign. He ranked seventh amongst all Chicago Cubs players last season in terms of WAR (2.2) – the only name on this list to finish in the green.

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In 76 games with the Cubs last season, Contreras batted a respectable .282/.357/.488. His 12 home runs ranked seventh on the team, as well, despite playing less than half a season with Chicago. He also caught 37 percent of those who tried to run on him, by far the best mark on the team.

Despite taking a longer road to Chicago, Contreras is still just heading into his age-25 season. PECOTA projects him to take a big step backwards in his defensive works, which is understandable given it will be his first full season at the Major League level. But the upside he presents with both his arm and bat make him a valuable asset nonetheless.

The future behind the plate is not Miguel Montero. Unfortunately, because of the nature of his knee injury, Kyle Schwarber likely isn’t the answer now, either. It’s time to accept that fact, regardless of how much fans don’t like the idea.

Willson Contreras has proven himself to be an asset both behind and at the plate. He has much to learn, but that comes with time and repetitions. There will be ebbs and flows during this transition, to be sure. Simply put, his upside is too great.

He’ll split time with Montero in 2017, but the future is clear: he is the long-term answer for the Chicago Cubs.

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