Why Miguel Montero's mindset is key to Cubs' 2017 catching plan

CHICAGO -- Understanding what the Chicago Cubs will do behind the plate in 2017 begins with understanding veteran Miguel Montero. That’s not an easy task.

On the same day the Cubs celebrated their first World Series title since 1908, Montero shocked fans when he was critical of manager Joe Maddon regarding his postseason playing time and overall communication between the two.

“I was a little disappointed, to be honest, because I felt like I did a good job in the regular season but was left out a little bit,” Montero said on ESPN 1000 on parade day. “It made me feel a little like not important or maybe not as good to be in this lineup.

"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 expected to get communication. Just let me know. Put me in the loop. That was the toughest part for me because I never understood what my role was going to be.”

The timing could not have been worse, but it’s no secret Montero hasn’t been thrilled with his situation since arriving in Chicago. Both privately and publicly, he wondered why the Cubs were carrying three catchers to start the 2015 season until Welington Castillo was eventually traded. But then Kyle Schwarber showed up and took up playing time from him as well. This season featured a rejuvenated David Ross -- who was headed toward retirement -- and the debut of Willson Contreras, all while Montero hit .216. So his rant simply can be viewed as sour grapes, right? This is where his personality gets complicated -- as does his story.

Montero is thought of as a good teammate -- even to the point of his own detriment. He was the one who championed Contreras’ cause while the rookie was still in the minors, even recommending him to his own agency. It eventually signed Contreras, partly due to Montero’s influence. All the while, he understood he could be replaced by the younger player. Another twist to the saga: Montero and Contreras were represented by the same group that represents Maddon.

Montero quasi-accepted his new backup role and even played up his struggles in self-deprecating ways. He could at least count on catching Jake Arrieta for much of the season but slowly that was taken away from him, especially when facing an opponent who could steal bases -- like the Cleveland Indians. After all, he threw out just 11 percent of runners in 2016. By the time the World Series rolled around -- and after Montero hit a dramatic grand slam earlier in the postseason -- the seeds of his discontent already were growing. In fact, Montero switched agents midseason -- though it may only be a coincidence they represented Maddon as well.

So fast-forward to his surprising radio interview. It had been brewing.

Maybe he got everything off his chest that day, because sources indicate he wants to return to the Cubs in 2017 after many in the industry expected him to ask to be traded. The Cubs may trade him anyway, but they undoubtedly will have to pick up a lot of his $14 million salary.

One scenario put forth by a veteran agent had the Cubs moving Montero and offering Ross a deal “he couldn’t refuse” to unretire. Those were the exact words Ross used when asked if he would ever reconsider. But Montero can provide similar leadership as long as he and Maddon are on the same page. Montero has the ear of all the Cubs’ Latin players -- remember he came to the rescue the day Aroldis Chapman needed an interpreter -- as well as the pitching staff.

The bottom line is Montero wears his emotions on his sleeve. That can be a good thing but also sometimes can work against him. If he and Maddon are cool, then the catching rotation becomes obvious for 2017: Contreras is No. 1 with Montero the backup and also perhaps catching Arrieta on a regular basis. Contreras has the superior arm, so he and Jon Lester seem like a natural fit there. Maddon easily could mix and match with one right-handed-hitting catcher and one left-handed one.

There could be one snag to the plan, though: What if Schwarber wants to return and earns his way back in behind the plate? Then the Cubs could be in a pickle again, but that only happens if Montero and/or Contreras struggle to the point of needing Schwarber’s bat in the lineup along whoever replaces him in left field.

The key is Montero. Will he take over the leadership role Ross embraced while possibly not playing as much as he'd like? As much as voicing his displeasure came at a bad time, he did wait until the season was over and never disrupted the Cubs' march to the World Series. Montero’s big hits in the latter parts of the season prove he can still come through at the plate, so the combination of he and Contreras could prove to be a good one if all parties are on the same page.