Position by Position: Catcher

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(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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.

Willson Contreras

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.

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(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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.

Miguel Montero

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.

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(Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

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.

Kyle Schwarber

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.

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(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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.

Position by Position: Left Field

(AP)

The wait is over. Cubs fans will get to see Kyle Schwarber for a full season in left field after missing all of the 2016 regular season. We all got a sneak peek of Schwarber in the World Series, when he returned from an ACL tear in time to hit .412 in 17 at bats and even steal a base.

It looks as if Kyle Schwarber will be getting the nod in left field for the majority of the games in the upcoming season after the Cubs traded outfielder Jorge Soler for relief pitcher Wade Davis. However, Schwarber is still recovering from a serious knee injury and he’s only played 85 games in his Major League career, postseason included. Schwarber won’t start all 162 games, and he probably won’t get close to a full season. Other players who will play in left field include Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora Jr, Wilson Contreras, and Matt Szczur.

Kyle Schwarber, born in Ohio in 1993, will be playing in his age-24 season in 2017. He was drafted fourth overall in 2014 by the Cubs as a catcher out of Indiana University-Bloomington, and made his debut in the following season. In 273 at bats in 69 games during his rookie season, Schwarber slashed .246/.355/.487 and hit 16 home runs while drawing 36 walks. The success continued for Schwarber in the postseason, where he hit 5 homers in 27 at bats in the Wild Card, NLDS, and NLCS. In just 78 games, he was beginning to make a name for himself in the North Side, and there were high hopes for him in 2016.

On April 7, during a regular game against the Diamondbacks, Jean Segura hit a line drive to left-center field. There was miscommunication between Schwarber and the center fielder Dexter Fowler, which ultimately resulted in a nasty collision between the two. Sources said it was only an ankle injury for Kyle, but it ended up being a torn ACL, leaving Cubs fans speechless.

(Ezra Saw/Getty Images)

He was supposed to be out for the entire season, but despite numerous statements saying Schwarber would not return for the postseason, he returned for the World Series! He still didn’t look too great and wasn’t able to play in left field, but having his bat in the lineup for the games in Cleveland provided a boost for the Cubbies. In 17 at bats as a DH and pinch hitter, Schwarber slashed .412/.500/.471, driving in two runs and walking three times. If Schwarber can hit off the likes of Corey Kluber (whom he went 3 for 4 against) after missing an entire season, then can’t he hit off of anyone?

The Schwarber return not only helped the Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years, but also provided a ton of optimism for Cubs fans regarding the young left fielder. In a small sample size, he proved that he could still see the ball well, and that the injury wouldn’t set him back as much as some were saying. He might not be able to play behind the plate, but it looks like he’ll be able to be the slugger he was in his rookie year.

Thar being said, Schwarber is far from perfect. He’s not very good defensively (-3 DRS in LF in 2015) and his ACL tear won’t help. He has really bad splits against lefties (.143/.213/.268 slash line in 61 career PA). That’s worse than Jake Arrieta’s line vs lefties (.240/.269/.360). He can also work on his relatively high strikeout rate (career 28.4 K%).

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(FanGraphs)

Schwarber also has a tendency to hit the ball to the right side, as you’d expect from a left-handed slugger, and the shift will be in play for most of his at bats in 2017. Hitting the ball to the opposite field should help Schwarber improve next year.

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I’d expect Schwarber gets the majority of the starts in left field when there’s a righty on the mound for the opposition, as his slash lines vs righties (.272/.392/.544) is great for such a young hitter. In fact, 14 of his 16 home runs in 2015 came off of righties and he hits for more power against them.

When Schwarber doesn’t get the nod, however, Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant will be the next in line. Zo played 127.2 inning in left in 2016, and Bryant played 353.1 innings at the same position. Playing one of the two in left field will open up a spot in the infield for Javier Báez, who would replace Zobrist at second or Bryant at third when one of the two plays the outfield. Other options for left field include recent acquisition Jon Jay, who has played 339 innings in left in his career, as well as sophomore player Albert Almora Jr, who played in a few games in left in his rookie year. The Cubs also have Matt Szczur, who played over 200 innings in left in 2016, and Willson Contreras can also man left field, but he’ll primarily catch in the upcoming season. All are solid options, but we likely won’t see Jay or Almora there unless all other options are off the table.

Joe Maddon has several intriguing options for left field in 2017, and it will be interesting to see how the position is managed. Kyle Schwarber should get the majority of the starts in left, but after that  Maddon has plenty of options and can have fun with it.