Earlier today, the Chicago Cubs designated back-up catcher Miguel Montero for assignment. We’ve discussed the reasons why he was let go to death, as have Anthony Rizzo and Miguel Montero, so feel free to click on any of those links for more.
In his place, the Cubs called up catcher Victor Caratini – whom Luke discussed earlier, as well – though it’s not quite clear if he’s the long-term back-up catcher answer this season. Or, at least, that’s not what the rumor mill would have you believe.
In back-to-back tweets, Jon Morosi suggested that Tigers catcher Alex Avila was “an ideal fit for the Cubs” in more ways than one. More specifically, Morosi cited Avila’s great bat (1.026) and ability to control the running game (40% caught stealing) as the reasons why.
But, does this actually make sense? Or is this just a reaction to the events of the last 24 hours? Well, it kinda feels like both. Let’s dig deeper and see what we find out.
First and foremost, Avila is almost certainly available. After all, the Tigers (34-42) are in fourth place of the AL Central and a full 6.0 games behind the Indians. Besides that, Avila is a free agent at the end of the season, and the new CBA has made holding onto would-be free agents a whole lot less enticing. They also have a 27-year old catcher – James McCann, who may not have the bat of Avila this season, but has been fairly solid on defense – under control for three more years (via arbitration).
Okay, we’ve established that he’s available, but should the Cubs be interested? Well, in short, yes. If we focus on Avila in a vacuum, there’s no question that most teams in baseball would be happy to have him. This season, he’s slashing a ridiculous .323/.439/.587 in 187 PAs – that’s good for a 173 wRC+ (4th best in MLB among players with at least 180 PAs). In addition, he’s been a net-positive on defense, and has been worth 2.4 WAR overall (24th best in MLB).
I think you get the picture, but let’s really drive this home. Avila also has a 16.6% walk rate, and a 3.8% soft contact rate (yes, you read that correctly). And before you go thinking he’s just off to a lucky batted ball year, you should note that he’s averaged 11.3% soft contact for his career (league average is roughly 19%). Indeed, his 56.7% hard contact rate is equally impressive, compared to the league average of 32.2%.
And, hey, his minuscule 29.4% ground ball rate is nothing to sneeze at either, especially considering the recent fly ball revolution. All right, all right, that’s enough.
We now know that he should be available and that the Cubs should have interest in a player of his caliber. The real question is does he make sense for this Cubs team right now?
Once again, the answer feels like, “yes and no.” On the one hand, he’s a left-handed catcher (which pairs well with Contreras’ right-handed bat) who’s in the middle of a ridiculous offensive breakout. Plus, he’s been a positive defensive contributor, with a caught stealing rate (.400) that would rank at the top of the league if he had enough innings to qualify (it’s actually better than Willson Contreras’ qualified .340 rate).
He has had some history of concussions (2014 being the most recent case) and a knee injury in 2015, but seems to be mostly healthy over the past year and a half. The injuries contributed to a decline in performance during those years, though he’s bounced back in a big way this season.
But here’s the rub: The Cubs have their very own starting catcher, who’s perfectly good on offense and is very capable behind the plate already. Will the Cubs really be willing to spend resources on another catcher who will, AT MOST, split time 50/50 with Contreras behind the plate? Even if you’re leaning “yes,” you have to remember that he’s a rental, and that makes it even harder to swallow.
The Cubs offense could use his bat, the Cubs defense could use his arm, and, by all accounts, he’s a great clubhouse guy to boot … but I’m just not sure I see the Cubs adding 1) a bat, 2) at catcher, and 3) especially if he’s a rental. Remember, the Cubs didn’t DFA their stating catcher today, they DFA’d their backup.
Does it really make sense to spend a ton of prospect currency on a clear starting-caliber option (this season, at least), when the market price will be starting-caliber? I’m not sure that it does, but I’m always open to the possibility. And hey, who knows? Maybe the Cubs have a couple of prospects the Tigers value more highly than the Cubs do. It could happen.
In any case, I do think we should be prepared for the Cubs to make some kind of move behind the plate to add a veteran catcher (even if just a stop-gap, interim, glove-only type), because they may not want to lean too heavily on youngster Victor Caratini in that role for too long.