[Ed. - Bleacher Nation's Minor League Editor Luke Blaize - follow him on Twitter here - begins a series exploring the Cubs' farm system at each position, digging into many of the names about whom you may not have heard very much.]
Here’s how you know the Cubs are badly in need of some catching prospects: many of the players you are about to read about are being converted into catchers, and some of them may not even stick at that position. After turning out Geovany Soto, Robinson Chirinos, Welington Castillo, and dealing Josh Donaldson while he was still a backstop, the Cubs now find themselves with a few potential major league backups, a few converts, and that’s about it.
Well, almost. If we peer deep into the very lowest depths of the organization, there are glimmers of catching talent to be seen. Lots of glimmers, actually. And while relying on positional converts isn’t the best way to build up the talent base behind the plate, the Cubs are moving some very intriguing names to that position. You can daydream your way to this being a position of strength in as little as a year or two. After all, as recently as three years ago the Cubs had a severe lack of power hitting prospects and look where they are now. Such a radical turnaround isn’t impossible.
But today we’re dealing with the system as it is now, so let’s dive into what depth is there. I don’t intend to discuss all the catching prospects in the farm system, but if you are looking for some names to keep an eye on, this is a good place to start.
On the doorstep
Closest to the majors is Rafael Lopez, who was the primary catcher for the Double A Tennessee Smokies last year, and while he was a little older than we expect for Double A (he was 25), he put together a good season. In fact, Lopez was named to the mid-season Southern League All-Star team.
The season line for the left handed hitter was highlighted by a standout OBP at .247/.350/.392, but those numbers jump to a much more respectable .263/.366/.446 against right handed pitching. Stats like those offer no threat to Castillo’s hold on the starting job in Chicago, but Lopez could have a nice future as a backup catcher for the Cubs. Factor in his Double A walk rate of 13.4% and his high quality defensive work behind the plate and it is easy to imagine Lopez as the heir apparent to George Kottaras in another year or so.
Unfortunately, there really aren’t any high minors catchers of note other than Lopez. Chad Noble has done some nice work as a minor league backup, but at this stage I think his value is as an organizational veteran guy (a slot, by the way, where I think he does have a lot of value). Lopez is the only Cubs-grown catcher I see making any contribution in the Majors before late 2015.
Chadd Krist came to the Cubs in the 2012 draft out of UC Berkeley, and in his year and a half of professional time he has already made it to High A. He played fairly well there in the second half of 2013, posting a line of .253/.351/.382 with a very healthy walk rate of 11.8% and a wRC+ of 114. He should move to Tennessee this year, and while I don’t expect that Krist will emerge as high-impact starting catcher material for the future Cubs, he does have all the earmarks of another quality major league reserve.
Lopez and Krist, although they hit from opposite sides of the plate, actually have enough similarities that I wonder if in these two we might be seeing a template for how the Cubs intended to find catching talent. For both of these players, their most notable features are their quality defense and their high walk rates. They aren’t the greatest hitters in the system, but they are patient and will help out the offense by getting on base.
When Krist does take Lopez’s old job as the primary Smokies catcher this year, taking his place in Daytona may well be Daytona’s third baseman from last year Ben Carhart. Carhart is one of the infielders the Cubs are converting to catcher this Spring. The Cubs took him in the 2012 draft, and in 2013 he leaped over two levels and spent a full season with Daytona. His .247/.297/.336 line does not stand out, except that he only struck out out 11.7% of the time, and, as an infielder, he would quickly get buried in the Cubs ridiculous pile of high quality infielder prospects. As a catcher, though, assuming he can play well defensively behind the plate, he may have a somewhat brighter future. The low strikeout rate lends some reason for optimism as to his future development, as does his solid first half OPS of .730. It isn’t uncommon for players in their first full season as professionals to see declining performance in the second half of their first full 140 game campaign; the 2014 season should tell us how much the fatigue factor played a roll in pulling down Carhart’s season numbers. That said, for now I suspect his ceiling is that of a major league backup.
Reaching a little far into the system to really qualify for a category named “en route”, I’ll go ahead and mention Carlos Escobar here because he is showing some signs that a breakout season could be on the way. Escobar is another product of the 2012 draft. As a 22 year old he spent his 2013 season with Kane County, and how you view him may well depend on when you saw him. He got off to a very slow start and tailed off towards the end of the year, but in June and July his OPS was .876 and .720 respectively. That could be a typical hot streak skewing the numbers, but it could also be that his overall season OPS of .680 was artificially lowered by his slow start. This season he should go to Daytona, and if he proves the mid-summer numbers are the real deal he could be a candidate for mid-season promotion to Tennessee. If the Cubs do have a potential impact bat at catcher above Short Season ball, and I am not saying that they do, Escobar might be that guy.
Willson Contreras caught 86 games at Kane County last year, and the 21-year-old went through fits and spurts of success. It was just his second season seeing regular catching work, but his bat didn’t suffer too much, posting a line of .248/.320/.423, showing signs of a power/discipline combination. Contreras was signed out of Venezuela at 17, so he’s been in the organization for a little while now, but he’s still got a few levels to climb.
Long way to go
The Cubs signed Tyler Alamo out of high school in the 2013 draft, and a number of Cubs’ prospect watcher breathed a sigh of relief when they did. Alamo was not taken until the 24th round and there were concerns that he would require a larger signing bonus than the Cubs could really manage under the new CBA penalties to lure him away from college. All’s well that ends with a catching prospect in the Cubs farm system, though, and Alamo instantly become one of the highest ceiling receivers in the organization. Look for this young catcher to stay in extending spring training to begin the season. If things go well he could report to Boise when Short Season A ball begins, but I would not be surprised to see him open in the Arizona Rookie League again. There is no hurry with Alamo. He doesn’t turn 19 until early May so there are no concerns with him falling behind any prospect calendars just yet.
Justin Marra is also presently immune to calendar concerns despite being drafted in 2011. In 2013 he spent his age 20 season with the Boise Hawks and put up numbers both good and not so good. On the positive side is his 10.4% walk rage and .259 IOS in 96 trips to the plate over 25 games. On the other hand, he also struck out 31.3% of time. He finished the year with a line of .224/.313/.482. That K% is definitely on the high side, but so his is ISO of .259. A left handed hitter with that kind of power is worth some patience as a catcher, but after keeping him in short season ball for two seasons I suspect the Cubs will want Marra to get some more regular at bats as part of Kane County in 2014. If he can take a cut out of those strikeout numbers, Marra will be one to watch.
Cael Brockmeyer, another well regarded collegiate catcher from the 2013 class, put up some decent numbers in Boise after being drafted. His .271/.355/.336 line for Boise comes with a healthy 18.2% strikeout rate as well as an abysmal .065 ISO. It is hard to imagine a 6’5″ 235lb baseball player continuing to show that little power, but it is also hard to imagine a guy that size staying at catcher long term. Brockmeyer may well be a candidate to skip a level and report to Daytona.
Three more collegiate athletes from recent drafts to watch are Lance Rymel, Jordan Hankins, and Will Remillard. We have no game data on Remillard, but whispers after the draft were that the Cubs were high on him. Rymel was taken in the 2012 draft and spent most of last season repeating the Northwest League. He also falls into the category of good strikeout rate (13.2%), healthy walk rate (7.9%) and little evident power (ISO of .062). Like Brockmeyer, though, I think there is more power in his frame than that ISO rate is showing, so I would not write him off yet.
And then we have our other position-switcher, Jordan Hankins. Hankins was a catcher/second baseman in college, and it was a small surprise when the Cubs, who were already loaded with middle infielders, drafted him as a second baseman in 2013. Six month later Hankins is heading back behind the plate. He is a left handed hitter, and his line from Boise is eerily similar to Rymel (strikeout rate of 13.9%, walk rate of 7.0%, IOS of .055). I suspect there is enough upside in his bat that he could make a bit of a name for himself behind the plate.
The final player I’ll note here is a position re-switcher. The Cubs signed Mark Malave as a catcher, moved him out from behind plate, but word this spring is that they are moving him right back there again. Malave is a young switcher hitter who spent his age 17 season in the Caribbean and his age 18 season in Arizona. His line for the Rookie League club was good (.270/.381/.339) except for the SLG, but not spectacular. It is more impressive that as an 18 year old he is already posting a walk rate of 15.7%. If he keeps that up as he moves up the system, Malave could easily emerge as the best catching prospect in the organization. Look for him to move up to Boise in the second half of the season.
None of the players I just named look like The Next Great Catcher today, but one key thing to note is the sheer number of players there were to mention. The Cubs have been focusing on catching in the mid rounds of the past few drafts (a trend I suspect will continue, by the way), and as a result they have a large stockpile of catching potential. It only takes a couple of these guys to surprise and break out for the Cubs to quite suddenly enjoy a surplus of quality catching on the farm. By piling up the prospects in quantity the Cubs are at least giving themselves a chance for that to happen. If they pick up a higher ceiling receiver via trade or draft, and either is possible, that conversion of weakness to strength could happen even faster.
I’m not optimistic on the Cubs’ catching situation today, but I am optimistic that I will be optimistic a year from now. Given the volume of potential deep down in the system, I would not be surprised if at the end of the season we find that the emergence of young catching was one of the bigger stories of the year.