Willson Contreras made his highly-anticipated major league debut on Friday against the Pirates, albeit for half an inning defensively. He takes the roster spot of Tim Federowicz, the little-used third-string catcher who had no future with the team. But the Cubs still have two other major league catchers on the roster, plus another one currently on the disabled list. With the team deciding that Contreras is major league ready, what does their catching situation look like both now and moving forward?
Let’s look at each individual player this affects:
Miguel Montero: This has not been a good year for Montero. He’s already been on the disabled list, and when he has played he’s batted just .200 with a -0.5 defensive Wins Above Replacement (WAR). He turns 33 this year and has a strong track record as both a good offensive and defensive player. Montero is under contract through next season for $14 million.
David Ross: Ross has been getting more playing time than expected, partly because Montero has played poorly and partly because Ross is having his best season in years. The well-respected 39-year-old veteran says this will be his last season, so he won’t be a factor in the team’s future plans – unless maybe he pursues a future in coaching.
Contreras: The 24-year-old top prospect has been heralded for his defense and was lighting up the Pacific Coast League with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs, posting a 1.030 on-base plus slugging percentage and driving in 43 runs. Of course, we don’t know yet whether that will translate into major league success, though the Cubs have brought up several players over the past couple of seasons who instantly performed, including Kyle Hendricks, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, and recently Albert Almora.
Schwarber: We all know that Schwarber can mash, and assuming he continues that success next year when he comes back from injury, the Cubs will have to figure out where he’ll play. He was drafted as a catcher, but manager Joe Maddon put him in the outfield a lot towards the end of last year in order to get his bat into the lineup. He is not considered a strong defensive player at either position.
So what will happen, this year and beyond?
Many commentators don’t believe that Contreras will instantly become an everyday player. But his situation reminds me of what happened with Schwarber last year. Schwarber and Contreras are much different players, but when Schwarber came up last year, we wondered how much he would play and whether it would be worth playing him part-time in the majors as opposed to full-time in the minors. We all know what happened: Schwarber hit so much that by the end of the year Maddon couldn’t keep him out of the lineup.
One big difference is that Schwarber was brought up (the second time, for good, in July) more out of necessity, since the Cubs were struggling offensively, Montero was on the disabled list, and Ross was almost an automatic out. The Cubs are playing well enough now that they don’t need Contreras, which speaks to just how ready Cubs management thinks he is.
So, just how much will Contreras play? Maddon will certainly give him an audition, and if he performs, my guess is that he will play a lot. Maddon has shown over the past couple of years with players like Bryant, Russell, and Schwarber that experience doesn’t matter: If you hit, you’ll play. But defensively, the bar will be set high, as the Cubs’ starting rotation is having a historically good year and Contreras will have to prove that he can help them continue that success.
Where does that leave Ross and Montero? Ross is having a decent year, but let’s be honest – he’s a backup catcher. He will still catch for Jon Lester, and he’s shown a lot of value this year as a part-time player. If Contreras plays decently, he should be ahead of Ross on the depth chart. As for Montero, it’s now or never. He’s looked lost at the plate all year, and Maddon can’t afford to be much more patient with him if he has two other solid options behind the plate. If Contreras struggles to start his major league career, the guess here is that Ross will get more and more playing time as the season goes on.
Regardless of what happens the rest of 2016, it wouldn’t surprise me if after the season the Cubs try to unload Montero for the final year of his contract, give Contreras a chance to be the everyday starting catcher, and find another Ross-type backup. And with Contreras in the fold, that likely means Schwarber’s future with the Cubs will be in the outfield, though if Contreras struggles next year or the team can’t find a reliable backup, Schwarber may see time behind the plate again.
Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.