The catcher position is usually a predictable scenario for most teams in the league: you have one regular starter who can also hit sufficiently, and one backup who may not have the best bat, but provides exceptional defense whenever spot starts are necessary.
True to form, Joe Maddon’s Chicago Cubs have bucked convention since his arrival in 2015. Since Opening Night of his first season, Maddon regularly had three catchers on his roster, ranging from Welington Castillo to Willson Contreras. This has proven to be advantageous for the Cubs, providing Maddon with extra depth behind the plate for that lengthy, extra inning midsummer contest and day-to-day lineup variance.
With the retirement of David Ross following a surprisingly effective farewell tour, and regression from former “regular” catcher Miguel Montero, Maddon’s 2017 plans became less clear. But now we have an idea of how he’ll likely manage his backstop, and it still includes three catchers: Contreras, Montero and Kyle Schwarber.
The 2016 rookie was surprisingly effective in his first big league term, slashing .282/.357/.488 and logging a 2.2 fWAR. This kind of production was certainly expected from Contreras once he developed into a full-time major league catcher, but the surprise came from the immediacy of his success. He wasted no time leaving his mark on the 2016 World Champion Chicago Cubs.
Contreras made his debut on June 17 and played in 76 games, usually behind the plate and occasionally in left field. During the regular season, he primarily caught John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks, and in the World Series he effectively caught Jake Arrieta. One can anticipate this won’t change, but we can also expect to see a lot more of Willson Contreras in 2017 beyond it being his first full big league season.
Despite reluctance to pair Contreras with Jon Lester in 2016 due to the ace’s marriage to David Ross, that ball-and-chain is now out of the picture, and the Cubs are committed to giving a Contreras/Lester battery a shot. We can’t make note of this pairing without beating the dead “Lester can’t throw to first” horse, and Contreras helps mitigate that problem with exceptional arm accuracy and strength.
Lester is arguably easier to please than his best buddy John Lackey, and the Lackey/Contreras battery in 2016 was a fun one to watch when the veteran starter had his good stuff working. Lester is a three-time World Series champion and many-time (and current) staff ace. He doesn’t owe all of his success to David Ross, and I don’t see this change negatively impacting his performance long-term.
Ross had a quality offensive season in 2016 for a backup catcher, but he’s no Willson Contreras at the dish. Arguably — and time will tell if this is the case — the Cubs may be in a better position behind the plate now than they were a year ago in this regard.
Fortunately, Montero dispelled rumors of his disenfranchisement with the Cubs by tweeting a lovely picture of himself and Maddon out on the town. It was the most absurd non-story of the offseason: that somehow Montero, who expressed displeasure over lack of playing time on occasion before and after the postseason, was somehow going to be a “distraction” to the 2017 Cubs.
Let’s forget that he’s set to make $14 million in 2017 (which matters quite a bit to the legion of meatheads who don’t like him now) and put this in a human context: since his days with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009, Miguel Montero has been a primary starting catcher. He was so effective that he earned all-star selections in 2011 and 2014, and served as the Cubs’ primary catcher in 2015.
He was objectively terrible for most of the 2016 season, logging a .631 OPS through August 26 and allowing runners to steal him blind due to what one can assume was his bad back. As a result, he was relegated to one start per rotation cycle, remaining Jake Arrieta’s trusted counterpart.
Can you even imagine how devastating it has to be, over the course of just one year, to go from the guy to the backup’s backup? 2016 was a huge setback in Miguel Montero’s life. He genuinely felt he could contribute, and the team felt otherwise. If you genuinely think this wouldn’t be defeating to you, you’re lying to yourself. Or simply lack empathy.
But some people just need drama, no matter how incredibly harmonious the Cubs as we know them happen to be. Fortunately, Montero has earned praise early in spring training for showing up at camp in tremendous shape and for his leadership role on the club. It’s assumed he’ll catch Arrieta every five days again, and if he improves upon his 2016 campaign, there’s little doubt Maddon will find even more opportunities for him.
Make no mistake: the Chicago Cubs are better with Miguel Montero. He’s a well-respected figure in the clubhouse with a track record to back it up, a track record people often, willfully forget. Since he and Maddon have moved on, you should too.
When Schwarber said he wanted to catch again in 2017, I rolled my eyes and thought he was being stubbornly hopeful. Then I quickly reminded myself what he did in the 2016 World Series, and convinced myself this guy can and will do anything he sets his mind to, and do it successfully.
I have incredibly little doubt that Schwarber will serve as Maddon’s last resort behind the plate. No matter how healthy he is right now, Maddon will almost assuredly play it safe and relegate him to left field on a day-to-day basis. Given that Schwarber has always been a pedestrian defensive catcher anyway, Maddon’s decision is an easy one.
Still, you can expect him to don the gear and assume the position from time to time. I don’t foresee him being matched with anyone in the rotation, but if he is you’re looking at ~30 starts behind the plate, max. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the possibility of the Cubs running a six-man rotation at any given point in the year.
Kyle Schwarber is going to be the Cubs’ every day left fielder. But his versatility — along with the versatility of literally everyone not named Anthony Rizzo or Miguel Montero — gives Joe Maddon an ace-in-the-hole if Contreras or Montero go down with an injury. Not many other teams have a potential 40 home run hitter that can also work behind the plate, and Maddon will respond to this blessing accordingly.