Craig's Future: a New Position

When minor league rosters were finalized earlier this spring, Matt Craig was sent down a level to Class-A Daytona after two years at Double-A. The reason behind what would otherwise appear to be a step back for the former third-round pick was in fact only the conduit of an organizational decision designed to introduce Craig to yet another new position this year.

If the above photo of Matt Craig looks three years old, it's because it is.

Some 20 games into the new 2006 season, which sees him back in the NASCAR capitol of the world for the first time since the year after he was drafted by the Cubs nearly four years ago, Craig has made all of his starts at the semi-familiar position of first base.

First isn't his "default" position (that would still be third base), but Craig did spend most of last year in his second Double-A season manning the right side of the infield, often alternating starts there with the power-hitting Brandon Sing at West Tenn.

It was the first time in his professional career that Craig had ever gotten less playing time at third than at another position in the field.

And when he reported to Spring Training earlier this year, Craig was approached by the Cubs about another new position, one unlike any other he'd ever tried to perfect.

That position was catcher.

"That was the whole reason why I was sent here to Daytona," says Craig, who turned 25 two weeks ago to the date. "That's why I didn't go up to Triple-A. The topic came up and I did well out in Spring Training. Oneri [Fleita] said that I might have to take a step back, but that we needed to look at the big picture."

Everyone knows what "the big picture is," of course. Call it whatever you want, but it's the same to Craig as it is to every minor league prospect on any minor league club from Daytona, Fla., to Dayton, Ohio -- that one shot, that one call, that one twinkle of a moment in the big leagues, where once there, anything can happen.

Having witnessed his defensive prowess for years, Fleita and company knew that Craig had both the throwing arm and overall awareness that comes with playing third base on a daily basis to give the catcher's position a try.

And although he has yet to make an official appearance behind the plate in any game to this point, Craig has been catching bullpen sessions and believes he's getting close to his first taste of live action.

"They first wanted me to come down here and start catching bullpens and side sessions," he said. "I think now they're kind of waiting to put me in during one of the blowout games. Lately, we've been working a lot on blocks and pitches in the dirt. I think it's been going well. I'm very excited about this whole opportunity."

But Fleita, the Cubs Director of Player Development for the last six years, warns that Craig is still weeks and possibly months away from even being considered for any consistent, day-to-day catching duties in live games.

"He is still tinkering with it at this point," Fleita stresses. "We will not be able to tackle it seriously until later this summer or fall."

Craig meanwhile emphasizes that he isn't abandoning any of his familiar positions like first, third, or even shortstop, which he played in high school and in college but only scarcely since he became a professional.

Instead, Craig says that adding catching to a defensive repertoire that already includes 3/4 of the infield will only get him closer to "the big picture."

"If I can play third, first, and catch, and probably play a little left field as well, that makes me pretty valuable in the National League," Craig says. "Sort of like three people all rolled into one person's body."

And already Craig has received catching advice from some of the best in the business. Among those who have tutored him this year are Cubs Catching/Baserunning Coordinator Buddy Bailey, Daytona teammates Jake Fox and Alan Rick, and even Chicago Cubs catcher Michael Barrett.

Bailey is serving his first stint on Fleita's staff after many years as manager of the Boston Red Sox Triple-A team in Pawtucket.

Fox and Rick are past standouts, whether at college in the Big Ten or in high school prep action in northern Florida. Barrett needs no introduction, although it should be noted that he is a former shortstop/third baseman himself.

Suffice it to say, if Craig is able to make a go of catching, he will have plenty of people to thank for the opportunity.

"I've learned everything just by talking to these guys and also from having watched guys on other teams," Craig says. "I had never done any catching in my life up until just recently. I always played shortstop growing up in high school and in college."

Craig added, "Catching is another tool to have and another position to have under your belt. It makes me more valuable to the organization with a better chance of making it to the big leagues."

Defense is one thing, but how is Craig progressing on offense?

After batting .275 in each of his past two seasons at Double-A, Craig got off to a slow start through his first two weeks at Daytona this year. He's recently turned things around with a 10-game hitting streak entering play Sunday. In that time, his average increased from a mere .121 to .271.

"I don't know if it's High-A pitching," Craig said, "but after talking with other coaches and guys like Nic Jackson and Jemel Spearman, who have played here and at Double-A and Triple-A, I've asked them, ‘What do you think about these pitchers down here?'

"We've faced harder throwers this year in High-A than I faced all of last year at Double-A. You can tell the secondary stuff may not be there with some of these pitchers, but I can honestly say that I've seen better pitching here."

Craig is also being more selective with his pitches this season. He has 12 walks to 11 strikeouts and points to this as the biggest change in his offensive form from years past.

"I think it's mainly my approach, starting in the second half at Double-A last year," he said. "I hit pretty close to .400 the last week of the season and I'd cut down on my strikeouts before then, so I continued that approach in the off-season."

"I have been more patient in the batter's box, and I have been walking a lot more," he boasts. "I'm also recognizing curveballs a little earlier. Little things like that."

Little things, but oh so big are the possible rewards.

Steve Holley is the publisher of Inside The Ivy. In addition to his work for Scout.com, he also covers Nicholls State University athletics for the Tri-Parish Times in southeast Louisiana. E-mail Steve at staff@insidetheivy.com.


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