Cubs Catching: Is There Another Willson Contreras Waiting to Break Out in 2016?
When Theo Epstein came aboard as the Cubs President of Baseball Operations in the fall of 2011, most of the Cubs’ minor league organization was barren and dry. Perhaps the driest position was catcher. Over the past four summers, Epstein has drafted catching prospects, acquired them by trade, signed international free agents, and converted several players to the backstop position. It is now a strength in the organization.
Miguel Montero and David Ross are both getting old quick. After the end of the 2016 season, Ross will be out of a contract and likely retire. Meanwhile, Montero will have another year left on his contract but odds are he’d be best as a backup. Montero is a great player to have in the organization though, as he really wants to work with Kyle Schwarber and especially Willson Contreras (who is also from Venezuela) in their transition to catching in the majors.
Speaking of Schwarber, his future behind the plate doesn’t look good. We saw glimpses of him at the major league level and it wasn’t pretty. Schwarber is willing to put in the hours to get better, but the fact of the matter is that he doesn’t have the best receiving, blocking or arm at the moment and his bat is more than big-league-ready. I think the Cubs want to try him longer at catcher, but they see more short- and long-term value in keeping his bat in the lineup as much as possible.
At the top of the list is Willson Contreras. The Cubs’ 2015 Minor League Player of the Year stands head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of his defensive skills and in his bat. Contreras broke out this season thanks to his smooth line-drive swing and a patient approach that led to him taking home the Southern League batting title. He was added to the Cubs 40-man roster when the Arizona Fall League was complete and will be at Iowa to start 2016, with a chance to debut in Chicago mid-season. If he performs well, he could take over starting catcher duties late in the season.
Coming into 2015, Contreras had never hit above .273 as a Cub minor leaguer. He exploded to .333 but I don’t know if he can repeat that at AAA Iowa. However, he’s always been known for his plus athleticism behind the plate and many around baseball believe the breakout can be sustained. He hit for around league average in power, and had an outstanding 10.9 BB% compared to an 11.9 K%. If he can be even an average hitter, he’ll have a role in the majors thanks to his defense (which does still need refinement before it is MLB-ready). But if the bat plays to what it is capable of, the Cubs have their starting catcher of the future in Des Moines next season.
Up next is the switch hitting Victor Caratini. In looking over all the prospects in 2016, Caratini might be the most improved of the lot when all is said and done. One reason is that he’s moving from the pitcher-dominated Carolina League to the more hitter-friendly Southern League. Caratini hit around .250 through August at Myrtle Beach. He finished strong though, hitting .284 in the month of August and starring for the Pelicans in the Mills Cup Championship Series as he lead the team to Carolina League championship. The switch-hitting catcher improved greatly this summer behind the plate and his emphasis on defense took away a little bit from his bat. When Teddy saw him over the summer, his swing was smooth but the bat lacked the explosiveness to hit high-octane velocity. Teddy’s assessment is that Caratini has to take a really big step up offensively next season to be relevant, although Todd is much higher on him.
Cael Brockmeyer is huge. The 6’5″ catcher was an all-star in the Midwest League in the first half of 2015. He then spent most of July and early August shuffling around Iowa, Tennessee, and Myrtle Beach before settling in as the backup catcher and first baseman for Myrtle Beach. Brockmeyer was part of the championship Kane County team in 2014 prior to winning a title with the Pelicans this past season.
At the plate, the big right-hander can hit for high average and has occasional power, mainly to left field. He is known as a great clubhouse guy and has a calming effect on pitchers, who love to throw to him because he sets such a big target. His recent stint in the Arizona Fall League revealed that he might have some issues in throwing out runners at higher levels due to an elongated arm action, though that can be fixed. With Contreras and Caratini ahead of him, and Will Remillard right behind, Brockmeyer’s future as a Cub is cloudy.
Remillard did not even play in 2015 as he spent the year rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. In the first half of 2014, Remillard was one of the key cogs in the Kane County Cougars lineup. He was one of the team leaders behind the and at the plate, leading the team in RBIs in the first half. It would be a waste defensively to have him at South Bend, but after taking year off, I don’t think his bat is ready for Myrtle Beach. He will more than likely spend time at extended spring training to get his bat back in order before being sent elsewhere for the summer.
Ben Carhart is a natural leader who also has a solid bat. In 2015, Carhart fought off several minor injuries and came back to help lead Myrtle Beach to a championship. The former first and third baseman converted to catcher in 2014 and has quickly developed a reputation as a tenacious caller of games and motivator of pitchers. Pitchers love throwing to him. Carhart has some decent power from the right side of the plate and it will be interesting to see how he does at Tennessee, although at this point he is certainly an organizational piece.
Ian Rice was the Cubs 29th round draft pick out of Houston. Like most backstops drafted after the 20th round, Rice was to be an organization catcher – you know, bullpen catcher, defense first, and not much of a long-term future. Something went wrong, or maybe right. Not only did the 22-year-old show that he can catch, but can hit a little bit too. He was batting .260 before a season-ending slide in September dropped him down to .252. It should be interesting to see how he does at South Bend and how he handles that brilliant staff of young arms.
The Cubs have a lot of catchers, period. Former second baseman Gioskar Amaya just finished his first year behind the plate at South Bend. 2016 will find Amaya at Myrtle Beach, where his focus will be to improve on throwing out runners. 2015 draftee Vimael Machin is moving from the infield to behind the plate and likely will be at South Bend with Rice. Tyler Alamo, a catcher who showed some pop in Eugene, likely will be moved off of catcher to focus more on 1B in 2016.
Although many of the Cubs current minor-league catchers are likely no more than organizational pieces, you never know what will happen with them. As we saw from Contreras this year, there’s always potential for a big coming-out party of a season. That said, our breakout candidates for 2016 include Caratini, Remillard and Amaya. Here’s to continued growth at a position that has gone from black hole to tent pole in short order.