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.
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.
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