Cubs minor league catching
With Willson Contreras making his MLB debut in 2016 and helping the Cubs to a World Series title, the Cubs young catcher is no longer a top prospect but his graduation to the majors doesn’t leave the cupboard bare. Five years ago, the Cubs front office identified the catching position as a weakness and they haven’t stopped adding to it.
Here’s a rundown of the Cubs minor league catching depth with an emphasis on the full-season affiliates.
Victor Caratini, acquired in a trade with the Braves in 2014, was behind the plate for 82 games in AA and added to the 40-man roster after hitting .291/.375/.405 with six homers and 47 RBI in 115 games. The 23-year-old hit .342/.426/.402 as a right-hander and slugged five of his six homers from the left side. Caratini played in the Arizona Fall League (.226/.338/.274, 19 G) and should spend a majority of ’17 in Iowa.
As in years past, look for the Cubs to sign at a few free agents with big league experience to minor league deals to serve as depth in case of injuries. Tim Federowicz and Taylor Teagarden have filled the role the past two seasons. Cael Brockmeyer (2013-16th round) spent time at the top three levels last year and hit seven homers in 71 games but allowed 40 stolen basses in 46 attempts. Brockmeyer will fill a similar role in 2017, providing depth where needed. Converted infielder Gioskar Amaya started ’16 in Myrtle Beach but only saw action in eight games behind the plate in Tennessee after being promoted. Amaya, a free agent after last season, was re-signed by the Cubs and should return to Tennessee for 2017.
Drafted in the 12th round and converted from an infielder to catcher, Higgins spent the entire year at South Bend and displayed his athleticism behind the plate and a great eye for the strike zone in the box, hitting .283/.389/.355 with 40 RBI, 72 BB and 75 K in 445 at-bats. The 23-year-old caught 77 games and threw out 33 runners in 105 attempts. Also allowed 17 passed balls and was charged with eight errors. Despite the gaudy numbers, Higgins did show improvement in his first year behind the dish as the season progressed.
A 29th round pick out of the University of Houston, Rice slugged his way out of South Bend, hitting nine bombs over the first 39 games and slashing .310/.417/.587 with 27 RBI and a MWL player of the week award. He was promoted to Myrtle Beach in late June but hit .238/.357/.386 in 58 games, including a trip to the 7-day DL in late July. Rice only caught 31 games, 14 in a Pelicans uniform and the rest at South Bend. He posted a .983 fielding percentage, didn’t allow any passed balls, but only threw out 5-of-42 runners.
Tyler Pearson (2014 draft-25th round) spent the year in Myrtle Beach as a backup catcher, hitting .205 with a homer and nine RBI in 30 games. Erick Castillo also spent the majority of his season in the Carolina League, batting . 185 in 43 games for the Pelicans. Alberto Mineo had his best season as a pro, batting .243/.298/.329 in 40 games at South Bend, hitting two homers and knocking in 26. The 22-year-old Italian native was signed by the Cubs in 2012 and caught 15 games in the MWL.
2015 draft picks Marcus Mastrobuoni and Tyler Payne split catching duties last year during Eugene’s NWL title run. A 30th round pick out of West Virginia State, Payne hit .246/.335/.391 with three homers and 19 RBI in 41 games, and threw out 10 of 44 bases stealers in 33 starts behind the plate. The other half of the Ems catching platoon, Mastrobuoni batted .227/.314/.356 with three homers and 19 RBI. The 22-year-old nabbed 14 of 48 base runners in 31 starts.
Gustavo Polanco, a 19-year-old from Venezuela, earned Arizona Rookie League All-Star honors after hitting .322/.351/.390 with a homer and 22 RBI in 46 games, only eight starts behind the plate. Polanco spent his first pro season in the Venezuela Summer League and threw out 7-of-14 runners in the AZL.
2016 draft picks Michael Cruz (7th round) and Samuel Tidaback( 21st Round) could be heading to South Bend when the Cubs break camp this spring. Cruz, 20, hit .238/.370/.331 with two homers and 15 RBI in 40 games for Mesa in the Arizona Rookie League. Tidaback, a Chicago area native, played at three different levels after the draft and hit his first pro homer for Eugene.
The Cubs top international catching prospect is Miguel Amaya, signed as part of the Cubs 2015 International class that put the Cubs in the penalty phase for two years. Amaya, a native of Panama, received a reported $1.25 million and spent his first pro season in the Dominican Summer League, hitting .245/.344/.317 with 22 RBI in 58 games. Considered the best defensive catcher in the 2015 class, Amaya didn’t disappoint, throwing out 24 of 51 base runners for Cubs 2 over 33 games (276 innings).
Life without Dexter
Not much has changed since last year at this time. Most Cubs fans thought they would lose Dexter Fowler and Jason Heyward may have to move to the middle. Fowler resigned, the Cubs won the World Series, and now Dexter is off to St. Louis for $82.5 million and five years. The Cubs still have the option of moving Heyward to center on certain days but the signing of Jon Jay and the emergence of Albert Almora will likely keep Heyward in right. Kyle Schwarber will be patrolling left field and the Cubs will use Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist to keep everyone happy and guessing the next day’s lineup. Matt Szczur is out of options so his days as a Cubs could be over. Don’t be too surprised if Ian Happ works his way into Wrigley by the end of the season. This depends on his success in 2017 but his versatility may land him on the roster, especially if a couple of injuries hamper the Cubs.
The leadoff spot may be another issue that manager Joe Maddon spends the entire season tinkering with. Zobrist and Kyle Schwarber are the top two candidates but you can rest assured Joe will end up using just about everyone at the top of the order.
Venezuelan Winter League
Bryant Flete singled as a pinch-hitter and stayed in the game to play LF, going 1-for-2 in Zulia’s 8-0 loss to Lara.
Dominican Winter League
3B Chesny Young (.421) had his hitting streak snapped at nine games, going 0-for-3 with a walk in Escogido’s 3-2 loss to Estrellas. RH Juan Paniagua fanned four in 2.2 scoreless frames of relief for Estrellas, allowing a hit and walking one, In five games, Paniagua has 10 K over nine innings and hasn’t allowed a run, surrenduring just four hits and two walks.
Puerto Rican Winter League