The Cubs will have a great deal of competition in spring training this year, and especially for bench jobs. One player who could take a roster slot by surprise is Steve Clevenger. Clevenger will come into camp as the third string catcher, behind Geovany Soto and Welington Castillo, but deserves some added attention as the only left handed hitter of the bunch. What’s more, Clevenger does not have to stay behind the plate. If the Cubs are looking for a left handed bat off the bench who can fill in on the infield corners, Clevenger is a good place to start looking.
Clevenger has taken a slower path through the minors than most prospects, but that has everything to do with his position and little to do with his bat. He began his career as a middle infielder in 2006. In 2007, the Cubs began to transition him to catcher. He also played quite a bit of first base. As he moved up the system, his time at first and third base declined as he further refined his game as a receiver. He briefly reached the majors in 2011 at the age of 25.
At the plate, Clevenger just hits. His career strikeout rate is below 12%, which is beautiful. He has consistently reached base at better than a .360 clip, and we have seen his power increase in the past few seasons. There is no doubt that he has the strength to launch a few home runs at Wrigley, but he is more likely to belt doubles into the gaps. Since he is a catcher, it comes as no surprise that he’s not exactly a base stealing threat.
With a low strikeout, high OBP approach at the plate, Clevenger is an obvious fit to play off the bench. A left handed backup catcher would fit perfectly on the roster alongside either Soto or Castillo, both of whom hit right handed. His ability to fill in on the infield corners just adds to his value.
Except on the Cubs, that is. The most likely candidates to man first and third for the Cubs are already left handed. Ian Stewart, Bryan LaHair, and Anthony Rizzo would probably be better paired with a right handed back up, such as Jeff Baker. That’s not to say Clevenger will not have value as a left handed bat off the bench, only that what he offers may not fit what the Cubs need.
On the other hand, I think it is highly unlikely that Soto finishes the 2012 season as a Cub. The new Cubs’ front office likes to turn short term assets into long term assets, and right now Soto qualifies as a short term asset. The Cubs could extend him, but with Castillo waiting in the wings it probably makes more sense to trade Soto and let Castillo take over the every day duties behind the plate. When that happens, Clevenger is the natural choice as Castillo’s number two.
I think Clevenger has a good chance to break camp with the Cubs as a bat off the bench, but his most likely destination is Iowa where he will be the primary catcher. Castillo will likely backup Soto in the majors until July, when I expect Soto to be dealt (if he is not dealt before then). Shortly after Soto leaves, Clevenger could finally get a chance to stick in the majors.
One more possibility to consider: Clevenger is exactly the sort of prospect that could be attractive to the Red Sox as compensation and who the Cubs could be willing to let go. The same probably goes for the Padres as well. Don’t be surprised if he is shipped out to resolve one of those issues.