The Chicago Cubs have yet to officially announce the David Ross signing. When that does become official, it will bring to the fore two other things: (1) Ross will require a spot on the otherwise full 40-man roster, which means someone will have to be bumped; and (2) the Cubs will probably have to figure out a way to maximize the value of Welington Castillo on the trade market.
Being that Ross reportedly agreed to a deal back on Friday, you could plausibly conclude that Things 1 and 2 up there are connected. They may well be, and maybe that’s the reason for the delay in the official Ross announcement. Then again, these kinds of delays between when word breaks and when a deal is officially official are fairly common for any number of reasons, and the 40-man spot doesn’t have to come from a Castillo trade.
In any case, whenever the Ross deal becomes official, and however he’s accommodated on the roster, I think it’s fairly plain that the Cubs aren’t going to carry three catchers on the big league roster when the season begins. Miguel Montero and Ross are the focus of the Cubs’ catching plans going forward (as well-discussed in this BP piece from Sahadev Sharma), which leaves Castillo as the odd man out. Sure, the Cubs may try and figure out a way to keep both Ryan Lavarnway and Rafael Lopez around in the organization on into the season – depth matters – but dedicating 3 of 25 spots on the roster to catchers, who are strictly catchers, is simply not practicable in the National League.
That’s a long way of saying: the Cubs are almost certainly going to be shopping Castillo in the coming days and weeks if they aren’t already. There’s so much to like about Castillo’s game – offensive upside, excellent defense – even if the receiving skills are questionable. He’s 27 and is eligible for arbitration for the first time. As much as these were reasons to want to hang onto Castillo, they’re also reasons the Cubs should be able to get more value in trade for Castillo than they would reap with him as a back-up (or a back-up back-up).
How much the Cubs should be able to get is debatable, depending on how much other teams value Castillo’s offensive upside and defense, relative to the receiving issues. It’s interesting to look back at the last catcher the Cubs traded – Geovany Soto, at the deadline in 2012 – which netted only a mediocre pitching prospect. Although there are some offensive parallels between the two catchers, who were also both strong defensively. Soto was a better pitch-framer, but he was also two years older, and came with just a little over one year of control (at a decent salary, too). All in all, you’d expect Castillo to net the Cubs more, but don’t go expecting the moon.
The Cubs could probably do best if they were able to pair up with a catching-needy team that had a surplus outfielder – a starting caliber one – to deal. Whether that outfielder actually becomes a starter with the Cubs or not, having another quality outfielder in the fold raises the floor of the entire group.
Which brings me to this Bruce Levine piece, wherein he discusses the Cubs’ likely plans to trade Castillo, and mentions the Rangers, Red Sox, and Nationals as possible suitors (the Rangers make sense to me, though I don’t quite see it with the Red Sox or Nationals, unless the latter is dissatisfied with Wilson Ramos). Levine also mentions, however, the Padres, and their outfield surplus. Specifically, Levine mentions the possibility that the Padres could move Seth Smith, someone we’ve discussed here back when it looked like the Padres’ outfield was about to get crowded.
To be sure, it’s not clear that the Padres would want to pair Castillo with current catcher, Derek Norris (a similarly-inclined offensive catcher), and it’s also not clear that they’d see the values between Castillo and Smith as equivalent. Smith, although 32, is set to make just $6 million in 2015, $6.75 million in 2016, and then has a $7 million club option for 2017 ($250,000 buyout). It’s an extremely team-friendly contract (one he actually signed shortly before the team brought in a new front office that was apparently all too eager to displace him).
Smith’s 2014 season was a breakout, and probably not something that should be counted on for duplication (in particular, he hit lefties extremely well, something he’s not generally done in the past). But even in the previous years, he’s quietly been a very good, consistent bat. He’s got a career 112 wRC+, a 10.6% walk rate, and a .188 ISO. There are some similarities to Chris Coghlan – the 2014 version, at any rate – so you’d worry about having another outfielder who can play only at the corners and may need to sit against lefties. Maybe Smith isn’t a perfect fit, but I have some concerns about going into 2015 assuming that Coghlan will be able to duplicate his 2014 success after the four injury-filled and inconsistent years that preceded it.
I’m getting a bit far afield here, and the intent is not to focus exclusively on Smith. Instead, the idea is only that the best possible return for the Cubs in a Castillo deal might wind up being an imperfect fit – but someone who can contribute at the big league level in 2015. And, to that end, it seems unlikely that the Cubs could pick up a starting pitcher who is a clear upgrade in a straight-up deal for Castillo, nor are they likely to find a comparable value in the bullpen that makes sense for both sides. So, the options in a Castillo deal strike me as a pure sell move, trying to pick up the best young prospect talent possible, or a deal for an outfielder. Given where the Cubs stand out there right now – they’ve got to have Coghlan, Arismendy Alcantara, and Jorge Soler pretty much all succeed with no injuries or developmental hiccups – I think outfield remains a significant need. And if Castillo is a valuable chip the Cubs are shopping anyway, then a deal for an outfielder sounds like a great move to me.
Circling back to the beginning: I guess if I get my way, the Cubs will just have to clear a 40-man spot another way.