<
>

Cubs issues: Three's a crowd at catcher

Welington Castillo's days as a Cub are probably numbered with the additions of Miguel Montero and Davis Ross. Peter Joneleit/CSM/AP Images

CHICAGO -- Now that the Chicago Cubs have added outfielder Chris Denorfia to the mix -- though the deal isn’t official yet -- they may be done with their offseason maneuvering, save one more move: trading catcher Welington Castillo.

After acquiring one catcher via trade (Miguel Montero) and signing another (David Ross), there’s simply no room for the starter from the last two years. There was a moment in time when Castillo looked like he could be the long-term solution behind the plate, but his game still has holes in it.

Maybe the right-handed Castillo is best-suited for a platoon role. He’s a .240 career hitter with a .308 on-base percentage against righties but hits lefties at a .306 clip while getting on-base over 37 percent of the time off southpaws. Plus, his slugging percentage jumps about 100 points against lefties. Those are good numbers, but the Cubs felt they needed Ross' leadership over the better at-bats Castillo might provide off of left-handed pitching. There aren’t many lefty starters in the Central division anyway.

Behind the plate, Castillo’s strengths haven’t changed. He has a decent arm and blocks the plate well, but in the emerging “pitch-framing” category he leaves something to be desired. Whatever nuance it takes to get borderline calls from the umpire, Castillo doesn’t have it or umpires aren’t buying it. He ranks near the bottom of the league in several pitch-framing categories while his replacements are near the top. Guess who pitchers prefer to pitch to knowing those statistics?

Castillo will be traded to the highest bidder between now and opening day. That could be sometime soon or even in spring training, though that would make for an awkward camp for the 27-year old. The Cubs did lose some leverage as they brought in their new catching duo before moving Castillo. Teams know they have to deal him. Ideally the Cubs would have traded him after acquiring Montero and before signing Ross, but they had to make a decision on the latter with other teams closing in.

Two scouts disagreed on Castillo’s worth on the market. One highlighted the lack of good catchers around the league and Castillo's potential at the plate -- at least against lefties -- and thought the Cubs could still get a decent prospect or bullpen arm for him. Another said the fact that the Cubs need to move him, combined with his deficiencies, would only net them a second- or third-tier kind of prospect.

It’s hard to gauge the market based on what the Cubs gave up for Montero -- low-level pitchers Jeferson Mejia and Zack Godley. Both have potential but remain far from being major league-ready. The Cubs also took on $40 million in salary in the deal. Dumping that money was as much a part of the deal as anything for Arizona. Ironically, the Diamondbacks are probably still looking for Montero’s replacement and went as far as taking catcher Oscar Hernandez from Tampa Bay in the Rule 5 draft last month. Hernandez has never played above Class A, highlighting some desperation on their part. If the Cubs had Ross in tow before trading for Montero, it would have been interesting to see if Castillo had been part of that deal. Then again, the Cubs could be using him as part of a bigger package that includes a pitcher such as Edwin Jackson or even Travis Wood, so his market might be tied to others.

When and to whom Castillo is traded is still a mystery, but the “if” is no longer up for debate. His days as a Cub are numbered.

The Bullpen

Last month’s addition of reliever Jason Motte fills the void left by righty Carlos Villanueva -- though Motte’s role will be late in the game, not as a long man. The Cubs are hoping they picked up Motte just as he’s getting past his old injuries.

“Whenever you have Tommy John (surgery), that next year is always the difficult one,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said recently. “He’s further removed from the surgery. We like the potential given where he was in 2012 and 2011, and he gives us some experience down there.”

Motte saved 42 games for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012 before an elbow injury sidelined him for all of 2013. He appeared in 29 games in 2014, enough for the Cubs to offer him a $4.5 million contract with incentives to close games. But that doesn’t mean he will.

Hector (Rondon) did everything to prove he can do the job, and we didn’t go out and sign Motte thinking this guy is the closer,” Hoyer explained. “But Joe (Maddon) has been very creative in how he uses his bullpen in the past. I’m sure there will be opportunities for both guys.”

The bottom line is the Cubs felt they needed another veteran, as well as some insurance for Rondon. Villanueva did a good job bringing along the young pitchers, and now Motte will inherent that role. And as Hoyer indicated, based on Maddon’s track record and Rondon’s experience, Motte will certainly see the ninth inning on some days.

The biggest question facing the bullpen is from the left side, as righties Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez, Motte and Rondon have roster spots, barring a spring training meltdown or injury. That leaves up to two more positions for left-handed pitchers.

“We have a couple guys on our roster that can do that job,” Hoyer said. “Whether we go with one lefty or two is yet to be seen.”

Hoyer indicated that Maddon would have a say in the matter, but one thing is for sure, the Cubs will need a late-inning, left-handed specialist, and right now they don’t have anyone on the roster with that kind of experience. Based on last year, 26-year-old Zac Rosscup might have the inside track as he held lefties to a .200 batting average and struck out 13 of 25 batters while walking five. The Cubs also employ lefties Felix Doubront and Tsuyoshi Wada, but both have mainly been starters in their careers. Lefties Mike Kickham and Joseph Ortiz were picked up this offseason, but neither is probably ready for that kind of prime-time role. The Cubs didn’t feel Wesley Wright was that kind of pitcher, so he was let go since his price tag for a middle-innings guy was rising. That lefty to be used against Joey Votto in the eighth inning might be a work in progress, as Hoyer indicated the candidates are most likely to come from within.

As to the decision to go with one or two lefties -- barring a trade -- it makes sense the Cubs would have two in the bullpen. If both Travis Wood and Wada are on the opening day roster, then one -- Wada more than likely -- is going to be a reliever. Wada could take Villanueva’s role as the long man/sometime starter with Rosscup as the specialist.

Where does that leave Edwin Jackson? Coming off two sub-par seasons -- with two more years on his contract worth a total of $22 million -- right now the Cubs expect him in spring training.

“I think Edwin is going to come in and compete for that (roster) spot, whether that’s as a starter or in the bullpen” Hoyer said. “When he’s throwing well he can help us. We’re hoping that guy shows up … Joe had him in Tampa. It’s always a benefit to have familiarity.”

With Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks and presumably Wood as Cubs starters, it’s hard to see where Jackson fits. And the Cubs didn’t sign Wada to a $4 million deal to banish him, so Jackson still looks like the odd man out.

The Cubs want depth in their staff. That’s where Doubront, Jacob Turner and others come in. But Jackson simply doesn’t fit after his struggles, and fans have run out of patience with him anyway. A change of scenery is probably best for him as there’s a long time between now and opening day. So, like Welington Castillo, Jackson’s days are probably numbered. The Cubs may have to eventually pay him not to pitch in Chicago.