Cubs catchers are not filling up rooms in Cooperstown. Nonetheless, most would be surprised to find that in 2013 Welington Castillo posted the sixth-best Wins Above Replacement (“WAR”) for a catcher in Cubs history. Three of the other top seasons belong to Cubs great and Hall of Famer Gabby Hartnett. Even more remarkable perhaps was the fact that Castillo’s season ranks second for Cubs catchers over the past 75 years. During this time, only Rick Wilkins’s memorable and fleeting 1993 season nudges Castillo out of the top spot.
In his first full season as the Cubs’ catcher, Castillo’s 4.4 WAR – good for sixth place among all major league catchers – evoked optimism. Because Castillo does not turn 27 until next April, history would suggest that he now is entering his prime. Interestingly, Cubs rumors this offseason have focused on the catching position. First, rumors abounded that the Cubs were interested in signing a high-priced free agent catcher such as the Atlanta Braves’ Brian McCann (2013 WAR of 2.2) who has just signed a five-year deal paying him $85 million dollars with the New York Yankees. Other rumors suggested that the Cubs would make a run at former Boston Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (2013 WAR of 2.9). Just as those rumors dissipated, new rumors have begun that the Cubs are interested in two-time all-star Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters (2013 WAR of 0.4). If true, these rumors indicate that the Cubs foresee a need for an upgrade at the catcher position.
Despite Castillo’s early success, the persistent rumors surrounding the Cubs’ starting catcher position lead me to question the Cubs’ confidence in him. By all reports, Castillo’s defense is above average. His ability to “handle pitchers” or “call games” proves more subjective and thus difficult to quantify. For what it’s worth, Matt Garza famously utilized Dioner Navarro as his personal catcher when he had his excellent midseason run in 2013. What this says about Castillo’s catching prowess remains unknown for now. It is clear, however, that Castillo can hit and field his position. Perhaps the Cubs believe that Castillo’s 2013 season was a fluke such that he will be unable to sustain his unusually high .347 batting average on balls in play (“BABIP”). On the other hand, Castillo missed several weeks at the end of the season and still managed to accumulate the league’s sixth best WAR among catchers in only 428 plate appearances (far fewer than any of his catching peers).
If nothing else, the Cubs’ catching situation appears to be in flux this offseason. Indications are that free agent backup catcher Dioner Navarro (2013 WAR of 2.0 – sixteenth among major league catchers) will not be resigned. Available second string catchers abound this offseason, so replacing Navarro should not prove impossible. The Castillo situation, by contrast, will directly impact the Cubs’ rebuilding efforts. The direction that the Cubs take at catcher may provide insight into the timetable of the rebuild or it may reflect the team’s confidence level in its current catcher. As events unfold this offseason, the Cubs’ catching personnel decisions will bear watching and these questions may merit revisiting.