Yesterday, in addition to the starting rotation being set, Cubs fans learned which rookie catcher was anointed as the replacement for the departed Koyie Hill. Fans keeping up with the team this Spring are aware that Steve Clevenger and Welington Castillo had quite a neck and neck battle going on for the job. Manager Dale Sveum gave each kid 17 games to prove themselves and both responded at the plate, going 12 for 36 and 12 for 37 respectively. Of those hits, Castillo included two doubles and two homers to go with four RBI, but there may have been slight concern over his 10 strikeouts. Clevenger edged his teammate by a nose with three doubles and two home runs while tallying five RBI.
Clevenger also has flexibility over Castillo in the form of a left handed bat and the fact that he can play some first base. So it is with all those factors in mind that Sveum elected to go with Clevenger as the back up to Geo Soto. The back up’s playing time will be determined by a combination of his production at the Major League level and just how much time off Soto could use on a week to week basis, considering the day heavy schedule the Cubs play at Wrigley Field.
But who really won this back up catcher battle?
On the surface the answer is Clevenger, because he will go into Opening Day 2012 as the number two back stop. But the Clevenger Castillo duo has been touted as the combination that will eventually send Soto packing from the North Side. The long term question then becomes who will win the future starting catcher job? In almost an ironic fashion, that question may have also been answered with the decision to go with Clevenger over Castillo as the back up this season.
Castillo earned his first call up to the Majors a year before Clevenger. In limited action at the end of 2010, Castillo showed a glimpse of what he is capable of. But thanks in part to ex manager Mike Quade’s inability to plan for the future, Castillo was not given the opportunity to show what he could do with more regular playing time in 2011, and ended up having an unimpressive stint in September 2011. To be fair to Clevenger, he is a converted short stop, and his debut date of 2011 should not necessarily be considered as a sign that he is a step behind Castillo.
But it is telling that Sveum apparently told Castillo that he would be an All Star catcher some day. There is always going to be questions surrounding whoever ends up being Soto’s replacement, since it is not easy to gauge if a catcher can succeed in the Majors, and getting limited playing time as a Major League back up would certainly not be the best setting to help answer those questions. The long term winner of the Clevenger Castillo bout may end up being the Dominican. Castillo would get the benefit of regular innings day after day in the minors. He would also get the opportunity to build that much more of a rapport with the up and coming arms that the current front office is planning to build around.
Regardless, Clevenger would definitely not be the loser of the competition, considering that a worst case scenario of being a back up catcher extraordinaire in the Majors is not a bad gig; especially for a player that converted from another position to best keep his Major League dreams alive. The real loser of the competition will end up being Soto, in terms of having his days as a Cub numbered thanks to the team’s depth at the position.