I remember the day very clearly. It was an 11:00 a.m. start at Kane County in April of 2014. There were kids everywhere as the Cougars had a reading club day and the aspiring youth filled the upper bowl of the stadium. I sat below, first watching Jen-Ho Tseng throw his side session, and then watching Tyler Skulina attempt to pitch a game on a balky knee. But what really caught my eye throughout the game was the Cougars’ catcher, Will Remillard. There was just something about the way he commanded the field and the mound that day. He had a pretty good day at the plate, too, going 4-for-4 with a double and 3 RBI’s – a solid day’s work in all.
Remillard was drafted by the Cubs in the 19th roung in 2013. A draft-eligible sophomore out of Coastal Carolina, Remillard skipped rookie league and Boise. Before he had even played a game, Baseball America called him the Cubs’ best defensive catching prospect.
In the first half of 2014, Remillard established that he was indeed the top catching prospect in the organization. In 49 games for the Cougars, he hit .286, drove in 26, had an OBP of .372, was a Midwest League All-Star, and a received a very nice writeup by Mark Gonzales in the Chicago Tribune. He missed most of June with minor injuries and then a back injury at the end of July derailed his season.
Cubs management thought highly of Remillard’s performance in 2014 to extend him a non-roster invite to spring training the following season. But before the season started, he tore his UCL and underwent Tommy John surgery and missed all of last year.
In the short year and a half he has been away from live game action, the Cubs catching situation has changed drastically. First Kyle Schwarber came aboard, followed by trade for Victor Caratini. Then Cael Brockmeyer put his catching wares on display for the Cougars. Willson Contreras broke out at AA Tennessee while Brockmeyer was an All-Star at South Bend. It was almost as if Remillard became a ghost, a forgotten figure from days gone by in less than a year. Not all hope is lost though, as there are many who remember what he brings to a game.
Remillard’s skills involve a solid bat and good approach at the plate, but he is a catcher through and through. Watching him, you think, “This is how a catcher is supposed to work.” He throws behind runners, he throws runners out, and he calls time when something is not right with a pitcher or a pitcher is neglecting the base runner. He does all the little things that make a catcher an extension of the manager on the field. He gets on battery-mates to stay on top of their pitches, to attack the zone, and to be fully aware of the situation at all times.
As 2016 opens, Remillard could be assigned anywhere from South Bend to Myrtle Beach to Tennessee. He could even spend time in extended spring training. When pitchers come back from TJS, the routine is well known – limited innings and pitch counts. There have not been as many test cases for catchers though. Stephen Bruno, a second base prospect in the Cubs system, has rebounded nicely two years later, but the stress on a second baseman’s arm is quite less than on a catcher’s. As such, I do not think Remillard will be catching every day. The Cubs are likely to take it easy with his arm this year. He could play some 1B and DH and catch every third game until he is fully healed. It will be an interesting recovery.
If pressed to make a prediction, I would say he is likely to be assigned to Myrtle Beach. I see him as the perfect complement to some of the Cubs’ talented arms like Trevor Clifton and Jake Stinnett. The two young pitchers could benefit greatly from Remillard’s ability to keep pitchers focused and in the moment, his greatest skill.
You have to remember that the 2014 Kane County Cougars put together one of the greatest seasons in minor league history and Remillard was a major reason for that blistering first-half start. I don’t think the Cubs are ready to give up on him. It could take a year until he is back at full strength though, so patience will indeed be a necessary virtue in judging his progresss.
Heading into 2016, Remillard’s recovery will be one of the top minor league stories to follow in spring training.