Catcher Talk Catching Wind (All Caught Up)


Say that title five times fast….

Now untie your tongue and try and reset yourself. That’s essentially what the Cubs are feeling about their current catcher situation.

This certainly isn’t an easy spot to be in. The Cubs have been relying on Geovany Soto since 2008 as their go-to man behind the plate and he’s been consistent in his position. As far as catchers go, he’s one of the best in the national league.

However, Mr. Soto has been making Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein’s job particularly difficult for the last month. Soto’s numbers have been, well… lets just say they’re bad. And not “bad by his usual standards”, we’re talking like “bottom of the barrel can barely hit the ball” bad.

Soto has never really been known as a supreme hitter so this is not exactly a shock to a lot of fans, however, the issue lies deeper than that. His numbers from previous campaigns have been respectable averaging .285 at his peak and .215 at his lowest when playing over 100 major league games. This is more than good enough to slot him in the lower end of the batting order and still use his outstanding skills as a catcher to calm pitchers down and make good pitch calls behind the plate.

What makes Soto such a useful tool is his experience within the Cubs system (he’s been a Cub for his entire career) and his raw ability to play the number 2 position.

This is great… if Soto can maintain his relatively useful hitting ability late in the order. April has not been kind to him in that regard…

In his last ten games, Soto is averaging a dismal .118 with only 4 R, 5 BB and striking out 6 times. Its easy to blame such a trend on a harsh road schedule, playing lots of good teams, or lack of rest but none of these excuses apply. His 2012 total numbers have been no better posting a .127/.226/.236 triple slash and only 1 RBI on the season… which came off a solo homerun he hit early in the year. Its not like he isn’t swinging the bat either as he’s struck out in almost 1/4 of all his AB.

Its hard to sit back and think that his skill as a position player can compensate for his brutal performance at the plate so far. After all, defense is only half the game.

It seems that Steve Clevenger, the Cubs resident back-up catcher, has been noticing this trend in Soto’s play and is capitalizing on it to make a name for himself. Clevenger has been nothing short of outstanding at the plate with a .500/.522/.727 triple slash and an OPS well over 1.200.

It’s not so much the numbers that have been having an impact, it’s his clutch hitting that has been making the difference.

Clevenger has been outstanding with runners in scoring position and only 10 games in to his 2012 campaign, has accumulated 5 doubles (much like any good night at the bar)

He’s been a very pleasant surprise to a lot of Cubs and baseball fans alike. So that should solve the Soto problem right? Just play Clevenger as the full time catcher until Soto picks up the slack. Badda bing badda boom done…. next question.

As much as the principle makes sense, it’s not the right move. If it were that simple, we’d all be managing baseball teams right now… and when something seems to good to be true, it probably is.

And to add on top of that, he’s hurt.

Clevenger is on the DL right now with hamstring issues and his return is uncertain. This puts a serious wrench in the Cubs’ plan to insert his hot bat into the lineup somewhere. And lets face it… hitting and offense has been a huge concern for the North Siders this year. Losing a bat like his, even when he’s playing less than 50% of games, is never an easy pill to swallow.

With Clevenger out, Welington Castillo now steps in as the Cubs back-up catcher. Despite his lack of major league experience, he has 2 games under his belt in 2012 and doesn’t have any hits in seven at bats. Its way too early to tell if he’ll have an impact at the major league level immediately, but considering how close the race for that back-up catcher position between Clevenger and Castillo was, I assume he’s got all the raw talent he needs to become a part of the Cubs lineup a few years down the road. I trust Dale Sveum when he speaks highly of any player.

So what does the future hold for the Cubs’ catchers?

Its seeming more and more likely as days go on that Clevenger will be the go-to guy in the future. Getting Castillo exposed to baseball at the MLB level right now will only help him in the long run, as he will be called up to be a major league player one day and will know what to expect when that time comes. Soto is still the Cubs’ number one man, but don’t be surprised if you hear rumors of Soto being shopped around come mid-June early July.

The bottom line is Soto needs to step up, be the veteran player that he can be and start producing at the plate. A Soto trade isn’t viable at the moment as losing his leadership in the clubhouse would be a significant hit, and Clevenger and Castillo are still just a little too wet behind the ears to take on a starting roll in the major leagues. That’s not to say that Soto wont be a name tossed around the phone lines in the near future, but its not time to pull the trigger on anything outrageous.

Such is the reality with a rebuilding franchise. You have to take a few bumps on the noggin’ before you’re tough enough to take out the big boys.

It hurts now, but will be all worth it in the end.