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Chicago Cubs: What will their catching situation look like in 2017?

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In large part, the Chicago Cubs will head into 2017 with their lineup solidified. The infield isn’t in any real question, and with Schwarber likely set to return to his post in left field, center may be the only spot that faces legitimate questions as far as the group in the field is concerned.

Nonetheless, the situation behind the plate does represent an intriguing one for the team moving forward. The Chicago Cubs strode through 2016 with three catchers rotating in and out behind the dish. Heck, they may have had a fourth option to cycle in there as well had Kyle Schwarber been healthy for the season. They’ll enter 2017 with a very different situation.

They’ll enter 2017 with a very different situation. David Ross has obviously since retired and it remains to be seen if Schwarber can carry on with his catching career following his devastating knee injury from last year.

As such, Joe Maddon‘s penchant for carrying three catchers on his roster will require some re-evaluation heading into the new season. But a duo of Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero has the potential to be a very promising situation.

Of course, this is something that we saw as Contreras latched onto the starting catcher spot as the 2016 campaign wore on.

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And from an offensive perspective, it’s clear that he represents the superior option behind the plate over Miguel Montero, who’s coming off one of the worst offensive campaigns of his career. One doesn’t need to look too deep into their ’16 performance at the dish in order to realize the difference.

Not only is Contreras far superior to Montero with the stick, he has the potential to represent one of the better offensive players from behind the plate. His wRC+, at 126, ranked ahead of any of the qualifying catchers from 2016, while his .206 ISO would have trailed only Jonathan Lucroy. There’s tremendous offensive upside from the catcher’s spot from Contreras, which we obviously became privy to from the moment he homered in his first Major League at-bat.

Best option?

From a defensive perspective, each presents benefits and drawbacks as a catcher. Montero grades out as the better pitch framer, something that can be beneficial for a starter like Jake Arrieta or Kyle Hendricks, who really need those extra strikes in order to thrive. His arm has been in question throughout the entirety of his tenure in Chicago, though, and it’s there that Contreras presents the finer option. He made it a habit of picking off runners and threw out about 27% more prospective base stealers than Montero did. For someone like

He made it a habit of picking off runners and threw out about 27% more prospective base stealers than Montero did. For someone like Jon Lester, who needs that run game controlled, Contreras is the obvious choice, especially with David Ross now out of the picture.

It’s not as if the skill set that each brings to the equation is some big mystery. Contreras is the better offensive player and brings strength to that aspect and his defensive game, where his arm is a tremendous asset. Montero has the veteran presence to handle the staff, as well as the framing game that is essential to the success of the staff. Our question is how each will be deployed in 2017. This is a question that grows all the more intriguing when one considers two things:

Veteran leadership

Montero has the veteran presence to handle the staff, as well as the framing game that is essential to the success of the staff. Our question is how each will be deployed in 2017. This is a question that grows all the more intriguing when one considers two things:

  • Contreras’ versatility
  • Montero’s dissatisfaction with his role

The fact that Willson Contreras made regular appearances in the outfield and a couple at first base adds more intrigue to the situation. Montero could receive more appearances than the average backup, should Maddon need to utilize Contreras in one of the outfield corners, or to spell Anthony Rizzo at first base. This idea doesn’t necessarily mean one thing or another for this specific positional situation. It just means that Joe Maddon has supreme flexibility with his lineup, even from behind the plate. Contreras’ versatility more so means that on the days that Montero does start, his bat can still find its way into the lineup; it doesn’t necessarily mean that Montero will find his way into the lineup because Contreras can play elsewhere.

Perhaps the larger issue is Miguel Montero’s apparent unhappiness with his role and communication from Maddon last year.

"“I think the toughest part for me is they never communicated with me. I’m a veteran guy. They talk about veteran leadership. I have 11 years in the game and two All-Star [appearances]. I expected to be treated a little better. I was expected to get communication.”-Miguel Montero on Waddle & Silvy (ESPN 1000)"

He was vocal about it at the championship parade and continued to build on those comments when pressed in later interviews. Is this a matter of a veteran who is unhappy that he now has to accept a reserve role? Or is it more about the lack of communication from those above him as to what his role would actually be?

If it’s the latter, a sit-down between the Montero and the coaching staff should help to quell any concerns stemming from his comments. Transparency about his role could make this a situation where each of Contreras and Montero has the opportunity to thrive in their respective role.

Assuming all of that is settled and the Cubs roll into the 2017 season with Willson Contreras as their No. 1 and Miguel Montero as their backup, what do the daily catching duties become? After all, if he can rebound at all offensively, Montero does present more value than the vast majority of backup catchers in baseball. As such, he’d likely see consistent duty with at least two of the Cubs’ five starters.

He’ll likely catch on as Jake Arrieta‘s personal catcher because of his framing abilities, while also serving as the guy for Kyle Hendricks would make plenty of sense, given the framing and Hendricks’ own ability to keep runners at bay, which was displayed during the postseason. Contreras catching three out of every five makes sense, as he continues to grow into his ability to frame. His arm will be an asset for Jon Lester and we saw him consistently paired with John Lackey last year so that rapport is largely there already.

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There’s obviously the question of the fifth starter, but Contreras will likely handle those duties as well. The upside is too great for him to be anything but the No. 1 guy. On those other two days, perhaps he finds his way somewhere else on the field. But he’s going to handle the bulk of the time. Should he struggle in his sophomore campaign, perhaps Montero takes on a larger role. At this time, though, it should be assumed that Contreras is the guy.

Regardless of how it shakes out, this is going to be an interesting situation to watch as the Cubs transition into the new season. Despite the Cubs’ overall flexibility as a team, there isn’t as much depth there as there has been in each of the last two years, so these two will be heavily leaned upon. But with their difference in skill sets and some increased communication from the coaching staff and front office, each should be able to thrive in whatever their respective role turns out to be.

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