On Tuesday night, catcher Miguel Montero was scratched from his start against the Milwaukee Brewers.
Then, on Wednesday, he remained out of the lineup, while David Ross prepared to make his second straight start.
And, because Thursday was Jon Lester’s turn in the rotation, Ross (his personal catcher) was scheduled to make three straight starts behind the plate. While Ross, 39, has been playing well this season, no one – including Joe Maddon – wanted to see him get beat up behind the plate with far more starts than expected.
Wednesday night’s game was ultimately rained out before a single pitch was thrown, but Ross is back in the lineup today.
Still, even if you aren’t necessarily worried about a long-term injury for Montero right now, significant questions exist about the catching situation in the long wake of Kyle Schwarber’s injury. Specifically, a big unanswered question here in the early part of the season: if either of Miguel Montero or David Ross has to miss some time here in the early part of the season, who will be the first catcher called up to help out?
Your instinct that the first and obvious choice is Willson Contreras is understandable. After all, Contreras, 24, is a catcher in the Cubs system at AAA Iowa who is already on the 40-man roster. Moreover, he was the top overall prospect in the Bleacher Nation Top 40 and he’s been identified as the top catching prospect in all of baseball by MLB Pipeline, among other places, just this past offseason. Through his first 62 plate appearances at AAA, Contreras has been tearing the cover off the ball, slashing .375/.419/.446 with a mere 11.3% strikeout rate. He’s also reportedly made some big improvements behind the plate. So, that’s the guy, right?
Well, not so fast.
While we have always expected that there was a chance – at some point in the season – that Contreras could be pressed into some duty at the Major League level, I’m not so sure this is that chance. And when asked about this very topic this week, Joe Maddon declined to indicate that Contreras would be the guy right now (CSN).
Contreras, when he does finally come up for a long stretch, will likely be up to make a majority of the starts for the Cubs. He still has plenty to work on behind the plate (namely, his receiving behind the plate), so catching the occasional game, or for a short period of time, while Montero works his way back, doesn’t make a ton of sense. So, unless Montero (and Montero, only) is going to be out for a significant chunk of time, I wouldn’t expect to see Contreras get the call.
But that doesn’t mean the Cubs don’t have some other, quality options they can tap from the upper minors. For example, there’s Tim Federowicz – a 28-year-old catcher who’s also been crushing the ball at AAA Iowa. In his first 41 plate appearances this season, Federowicz has slashed .301/.415/.515 with a 14.6% walk rate. But the offense is all gravy, because Federowicz’s true talent is behind the plate. Long known as an excellent defensive catcher, Federowicz presents a different, but equally-promising short-term fill in, especially if he’s over the knee injuries of the past.
Although Federowicz is not yet on the 40-man roster, he can be added with relative ease, as the current 40-man stands at 39 by my count, there are a few guys the Cubs could risk losing via DFA and waivers without too much pain, and there are also a couple guys who could probably be moved to the 60-day DL. (An aside: Federowicz might also have the right to opt out of his minor league deal in the coming months, so, if there was a need anyway, you might strongly consider calling him up, because then you don’t risk losing him later when you might need him shortly after he departed for another organization.)
But most importantly, you consider calling Federowicz up precisely because he’s not a top prospect. He’s the type of catcher who’s development is mostly done, who just needs an opportunity to play occasionally, and who can contribute immediately behind the plate. Contreras, on the other hand, has some legitimate areas in need of of improvement, as well as a ceiling that far exceeds that of Federowicz. If you’re patient with Contreras, you might sooner find your catcher of the future.
So where does that leave us?
I’ll let Joe Maddon answer that question: “It depends on what happens,” Maddon said via Sahadev Sharma at The Athletic. “I think that would be we’d have to look at a short-term situation or a long-term situation regarding who you may want to bring up just based on roles.”
Basically, there exists one scenario in which you can think about a Willson Contreras early season call up, and that’s an extended absence from starting catcher Miguel Montero. If that doesn’t happen (i.e., Montero misses just a short window or David Ross has to miss some time), then I’d largely expect to see Federowicz behind the plate.
Hopefully, neither of these scenarios ultimately play out and Montero is back sooner rather than later (his availability off the bench suggests as much). If not, at least the Cubs have two quality options waiting in the wings at AAA Iowa – that’s not a luxury most teams will have, especially after already losing a potential catcher like Kyle Schwarber.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.