The Cubs have done a nice job developing catchers in recent years. Geovany Soto is the most notable receiver to come out of the farm system and is easily the most familiar to Cubs fans, but he is far from the only example. The two leading candidates in the battle for backup catcher this spring are also products of the farm system. Last winter the Cubs traded catching prospect Robinson Chirinos to Tampa in the Matt Garza deal, and just a few years before that Josh Donaldson was part of the package that brought Rich Harden to Chicago. Add it all up and there is plenty of reason to be optimistic at the Cubs’ future behind the plate.

As we head into the 2012 season the Cubs have a nice crop of future catchers spread throughout the system, including a very intriguing trio clustered in the low minors. No matter which minor league team you watch, odds are good you will see a catcher who has a chance at a major league future.

Top Five

1 – Welington Castillo. Age: 24. Major League ETA: 2012
With 131 Triple A games under his belt, Castillo is the most major league ready of the Cubs catching prospects. In those Triple A games he has hit 28 HR with a line of .270/.332/.507. He isn’t like to hit for average or draw many walks in the majors, but he has the strength to muscle out his fair share of long balls. Behind the plate his game calling is said to be improving, but his effectiveness against the running game has been slowly declining as he moves up the system. I think he projects as a slightly below average everyday catcher in the majors. He could see time in both Iowa and Chicago during the 2012 season.

1a – Steve Clevenger. Age: 25. Major League ETA: 2012
Clevenger does not have as much power as Castillo, but he is a better all around hitter. Both his walk and his strikeout rates are healthier than Castillo’s. A left handed hitter, he has the chance to hit for average in the majors. He is more athletic than Castillo and has the flexibility to play some at first and third, though he is by no means a long term option at either position. He is not a great defensive catcher, but he should have no trouble as a major league backup. Given his left handed swing, patient plate approach, and defensive flexibility, he looks like a nearly ideal backup catcher. Like Castillo, he could see time in both Chicago and Iowa during the 2012 season.

3 – Neftali Rosario. Age: 18. Major League ETA: 2016
In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 draft, Cub fans were understandably excited by the promise of Baez, the power of Vogelbach, and the upside of Maples. Often overlooked was sixth round pick Neftali Rosario, taken as a 17 year old out of Puerto Rico. Rosario signed quickly and immediately went to work in the Arizona Rookie League, yielding an OPS of .842 despite being one the youngest players in the league. Baseball America referred to him as one of the best hitters the Cubs’ selected in 2011. With all the other catching prospects in the system, there is no need for the Cubs to rush Rosario. He should open the 2012 season with Boise and is likely to spend the season in Idaho. It will take some time before we know what the Cubs have in this kid, but right now his future appears to be pretty bright.

4 – Micah Gibbs. Age: 23. Major League ETA: 2014
Gibbs is notable both for his defense as a college catcher and his ability to switch hit. He did not show much power at all while playing for Peoria last season (SLG of .317), but he did exhibit an ability to get on base (OBP of .355). Now that he has a year of experience behind him, I would not be surprised to see him accelerate up the farm system. Even if he never hits enough to be a starting catcher in the majors (something that is yet to be determined), as a solid defensive switch hitter he should make a very nice backup. Gibbs will open the 2012 season in Daytona. If he gets off to a good start, he could get a crack at Tennessee by the end of the year.

5 – Rafael Lopez. Age: 24. Major League ETA: 2014
As I mentioned earlier, the Cubs selected three good hitting catchers in the 2011 draft. Along with Rosario, Lopez is another of those three. He made his professional debut in Boise, hitting .316/.381/.449 over 54 games. A slightly smaller prospect than some others on this list, Lopez still managed to hit six home runs. More impressively, he also drew 21 walks in just 223 trips to the plate. In picking off 35% of stolen base attempts, he showed promise defensively as well. Given his age, the Cubs may let Lopez hit his way rapidly up the system. Should that happen, I would not be surprised to see him reach Double A Tennessee by the end of the year.

Others To Watch

Michael Brenly still has potential as a major league backup, but runs the risk of getting buried by the other prospects coming along behind him. Justin Marra is the third of the three hitting catchers the Cubs took in 2011 and is definitely worth watching. With Lopez and Rosario already ahead of him, Marra could start 2012 in the Rookie League.

We have four more stops to go as we tour the Cubs farm system. Up next we’ll take a look at second base.

  • Sean

    I just wanted to throw in a couple of the international free agent catchers that the Cubs have signed the last two years, as they have done a pretty good job securing catcher talent in that area.

    Willson Contreras: He was a big time bonus signing and has struggled a bit States side, and was actually moved off of catcher last year. However, I recently saw that Arizona Phil had him listed as a catcher, so maybe he’s back at it? He’s still young so he has time.

    Alberto Mineo: Italian national, young and promising.

    Yaniel Cabezas: Signed out of Cuba at about the same time as Rubi Silva. I haven’t been impressed so far and he’s a bit older than a lot of these other international signings. He did sign for $500k though.

    Marck Malave: Signed last year for a whopping $1.6 mill. I believe he’s only 17 years old, so I don’t even know that he’ll be playing in extended spring training or short season ball. I’m very hopeful his talent will justify his bonus.

    • Luke

      Good stuff.

      I think Malave will be in the DSL this year, but I could be wrong on that.  If not, he’ll almost certainly be in the Rookie League.

  • djriz

    Luke, I know it’s still early for draft talk, but do any of these prospects have the upside of Mike Zunina, the catcher at Florida? He is supposed to be ‘plus’ in all the defensive metrics (receiving, arm and handling a pitching staff) and power is huge (current OPS is over 1.300). He has been a top 10 prospect for about 6 months. His floor is said to be a great defensive catcher with big power (ML hit tool has been debated) and as this college season moves along, the word elite is being used more often.
    I realize front end starters and power outfielders is more of an organizational need, but I’m not sure the FO can pass on a ‘can’t miss’ prospect at a premium position.

    What do you think?

    Love your work (and your optimism).

    • Dumpgobbler

      I dont mean to speak for Luke, but no, none of our catchers are even remotely close to Zunino. Scouts believe Zunino could be at least an average, probably more defensive catcher at the ML level, with the potential to be a middle of the order bat. Think more of the Posey / Wieters mold. None of our guys sniff that, unless Rosario or Malave pull a Castro.

    • Luke

      If the Cubs take Zunina, I don’t think he’ll stay at catcher for the Cubs.  His biggest value is his bat, not his abilities behind the plate.  It does not make a great deal of sense to put potentially premium hitters in a very injury prone position that puts such a strain on the body that it can literally shorten a guy’s career.  I honestly think Zunina would (and should) be moved out from behind the plate.  If he can handle the outfield, that’s probably the best spot for him in the Cubs system.  If not, let him join the fray at first or third.

      But it is way too early to start projecting what the Cubs might due with their June picks.  There is a lot of college baseball to be played yet, and in some areas the high school game is just now ramping up.  Any projection made today would be little more than guess work and less reliable than a horoscope.

      As far as comparable players to Zunina, it’s hard to say.  Keep an eye on Marra and Rosario, especially Rosario.  He did some very good things as a 17 year old last season.  It’s hard to say where he could be in another two years.  I doubt either are going to match Zunina’s power, but either one could be a better overall hitter.

      • Kyle

        I think we’ve heard enough from the Cubs at this point to intimate that they are either very serious about the college starting pitchers, or want other teams to think they are very serious about them.

        I’m not a draftnik, but I was under the impression that Zunino’s bat doesn’t have a real high ceiling. It’s considered a relatively safe bat to play in the majors, but doesn’t have much premium upside.

        • Luke

          I’m getting the same sense on the Cubs’ preference towards college pitching.  An advanced power lefty would be nice, but I think every team says that going into every draft.

        • Norm

          I’ve read the same as Kyle…Zunino’s value is because he’s a catcher that can hit. Move him to another position, and he’s just an ordinary guy.
          The original question was about Zunino’s upside, I think there are at least a few guys with a higher ceiling (Buxton, Appel, Giolito, off the top of my head). If any of those three are still at #6, I would hope the Cubs pounce.

          • Kyle

            Appel is pitching in a way right now that makes me regret all those games we won last season.

            • Luke

              I keep looking for a scenario that would leave Appel on the board at No. 6, but I haven’t found one yet.  I’m hoping someone explodes onto the scene out of the high school ranks and knocks Appel down the ladder a little.  I doubt it will happen, but it’d be nice.

            • ferrets_bueller

              This. I was so pissed when we started winning more…at one point, we were in line to have the #2 pick, after the Astros. Of course, Mikey Quaalude managed to f that up too!

              • King Jeff

                Two years in a row he cost the Cubs several positions in the draft and hundreds of innings of developmental time for young players. It’s going to be a long time before I’m not pissed about Quade. On a good note, they did get to draft Javier Baez last year, so maybe they get an equally as exciting prospect with the lower pick this year.

                • DocWimsey

                  Managers do not have that much effect on things. The Cubs schedule the last month of the season had much more to do with their rise in the standings than actual improved performance.

                  In a sense, it’s the reverse of the complaint that fans of (some) contending teams have: it’s close at the end of August, but the competition gets an easy schedule. Boo hoo! The schedule maker has it out for us! Of course, that usually means that their team had an easier schedule over the first 5 months: but people neglect to take that into account. It’s the same thing here.

                  • hansman1982

                    I love the “managers have little control over the final standings” argument. It can be disproven in two examples: 2006 Cardinals, 2011 Cardinals.

                    The difference from Tony LaRussa to an average manager might only be 3 games but if you go from a Quade to a Tony LaRussa that can easily be 6-7 games which is HUGE.

          • Dumpgobbler

            Frontline potential starters are really lacking in our system, so if Goiloito or Appel fall to 6 (which I doubt) that probably should / would be the selection. Like Luke said, the big board will probably change 100 more tiems before draft day, so any discussion on it is just pure fun ATM.

            • djriz

              didn’t Giolito (sp) just blow out his elbow?

              • Kyle

                Tweaked it, but not expected to need surgery or affect his draft status.

                Personally, that makes me all kinds of nervous about him.

  • SirCub

    Say Clevenger is on the big league team. Do you think they could actually use his left-handed bat in pinch hit situations? I know that’s a big no-no, cause you want to preserve your back-up catcher, but with his versatility, you could pull a double-switch and put him in at third or first. Then, if you need him at catcher, you just move him over and put in your back-up infielder at third/first. Seems like he could add some extra value that way.

    • Luke

      I think that’s exactly how the Cubs would use him.

      Another possibility would be to get someone like Mather or Baker just enough experience behind the plate in practice that the Cubs could survive an inning or two with a stop-gap catcher, should the situation arise. Worst case scenario, you can always have Marmol or Wells strap on some pads.  I suspect Baker or Mather either one could handle a few innings in a pinch.

      • SirCub

        Well I really like this option, then. Cause it’s like the Cubs get an extra bench player, and a lefty at that. Pretty valuable, if you ask me.

      • Andrew

        I seem to recall them actually having Wells get ready a couple of years ago for some odd reason. They ended up not putting him in the game, but I think they had him catching a warmup in the ‘pen at a point when they though the backup may not be able to finish the game because of an injury.

        • Joepoe123

          Thats because wells used to be a catcher b4 they converted him 2 a pitcher.

  • Eric

    Seeing this list just makes me think of the 2007 draft, when we took Vitters, and Weiters was still available. And now Wieters is one of the most promising young C in all of baseball. And at that time, even with my limited knowledge. I was pissed off, because I wanted Weiters. If we would have took him, we’d have 2 very exciting young players in Castro and Weiters. And then ofcourse add Jackson and Rizzo. Just goes to show you how monumentally important really smart drafting is. Thank god we have one of the best now.

    • Joepoe123

      Im pretty sure they didn’t take wieters because they already had a very promising catching prospect called Geovany Soto who following the 2007 season won rookie of the year in 2008!

      • Kyle

        Baseball teams don’t draft that way. A pick and a high-level prospect are 4-5 years apart. They don’t impact each other.

        • Joepoe123

          yah they do if u have a young catcher who is high up for his age then why would they draft another? You don’t see the nationals drafting center fielders because they have Bryce Harper….. Or the angels drafting OF’s becuz they have trout….Now ur right not all teams draft that way but many do. WE don’t know why the cubs picked vitters over wieters, but one could only guess that if the cubs had an option of getting at the time an equivalent older catching prospect( even when you already have a highly touted catching major league ready player) to a young 3base prospect(Vitters) they would most likely pick the 3b which they did.

          If the cubs now had a choice in picking a college OF or 1B(even though they already have Major League ready players at those positions) or a young HS 2B or Pitcher they would obviously pick the pitcher or 2B

          • Kyle

            The Nationals used a first-round pick on a center fielder last year.

          • Luke

            In the first couple of rounds, and especially at the top of the first round, teams always take the best player on their draft boards.  We may disagree with how some teams have some players ranked, but the best talent is always taken.  If that means a team suddenly has 7 future Hall of Fame second basemen, then they get to make 6 amazing trades.  It doesn’t affect draft strategy at all.

            In the NBA and the NFL, it would.  Not in baseball.

            • hansman1982

              agree, the only way it might make a difference is if you have Player A and B ranked exactly the same in every possible scenario. In that case and Player A is a CF and Player B is a SS, then I would hope that the Cubs would draft Player A due to Castro. But then you also have, which is more valuable, a really good SS or a really good CF?

    • Sean

      In just over 1400 major league plate appearances, Wieters has a .743 OPS. Now, that’s not terrible for a catcher, but he’s definitely not in the category of most promising young catcher’s in baseball at this point. He’s contributed more than Vitters has, but Vitters was of course a high schooler and Wieters the seasoned college player. It’s not out of the question to envision Vitters being the better pick here.

    • djriz

      I remember this draft like it was testerday. Weiters was considered a tough, expensive sign (think his agent is Boros) that is why he dropped to #5. I would hope being cheap is not going to be an issue with the “new” Cubs.