Looking yesterday at the St. Louis Cardinals’ ZiPS projections for 2023, it was impossible not to think again about the Chicago Cubs’ decision at catcher.
A long time ago – way before free agency or even the 2022 Trade Deadline – the Cubs decided that Willson Contreras was not quite their preferred route at catcher. That isn’t to say they didn’t love his energy, his leadership, his arm, and his bat, but the Cubs made it crystal clear through their actions that they would much prefer to have a cheaper, extreme-run-prevention-focused catcher, and then spend the would-have-been-Contreras money elsewhere on the roster.
The Cubs were intent on betting that they could replicate the TOTAL value provided by Contreras in other ways. Maybe even exceed it.
The jury is going to be out on the decision for a long time. We’ll have to observe Cubs pitcher results relative to expectations *AND* Cardinals pitcher results relative to expectations, and even then, there’s a lot of noise that has nothing to do with the catcher.
All that said, I appreciated a section of a recent article at The Athletic from Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney, which gave readers at least a small hint at the kinds of things they want the catching position to be about in the years ahead.
It’s about their free agent catcher signing, Tucker Barnhart, and it shows pretty clearly how he sees his primary role with his new team, while seeming to reiterate what the Cubs care about most in the catcher position now:
This anecdote from Jameson Taillon gives a sense of what the Cubs want out of their catching position after letting Willson Contreras go as a free agent and pairing Yan Gomes with two-time Gold Glove winner Tucker Barnhart.
“I actually met Yan over the All-Star break last year,” said Taillon, who is at the beginning of a four-year, $68 million contract with the Cubs. “We were staying at the same hotel and I introduced myself and now it’s just happenstance that we’re on the same team. I went to dinner with a few guys (Friday night). Tucker and Yan were both there and we already started talking baseball and pitching. Tucker, I’ve interacted with him when I had to hit and he was catching for the Reds. He texted me a week ago while I was in Mexico. I was on the beach drinking a margarita, and he sends me a screenshot of like all my scouting reports. He’s like, ‘Dude, I’m doing a deep dive on you right now.’ I was like, ‘We’re not the same …’”
Taillon continued talking over the laughter from reporters: “In all seriousness, though, seeing the care that he has, when we’re in the thick of a big game in the middle of the summer, that moment is going to kind of be in the back of my mind, thinking like, ‘This guy cares for me. He’s done his research. Let’s just trust and go with what he says.’”
Tucker Barnhart, having just been signed by the Cubs, poring over Jameson Taillon scouting reports because he simply felt like doing a deep dive on his new teammate. Because he is clearly obsessive about that part of the game. That’s fun. And that sure seems to matter to the Cubs.
No one is going to say that Willson Contreras would not do the same thing. Or would not be the same way. Nobody anywhere wants to say a cross word about Contreras, because there was so much that he did WELL. We loved the guy. He was always my favorite to watch.
But going back to the very start of Yan Gomes’ arrival with the Cubs last offseason, up and through that Barnhart anecdote, the things that haven’t been said about Contreras have been deafening. Again, none of it has been presented as a “Gomes is like this, where as Contreras is like this,” and I don’t think anyone would intend a negative word about Contreras. But when Gomes is highlighted again and again by pitchers and the coaching staff and the front office as a guy who is solely focused on making the pitching staff better, it’s impossible not to notice the dichotomy being set up.
Whether it’s the game-calling, the pitch-framing, the in-game adjustments, the conferences on the mound, the work with the coaching staff during games to optimize, the fidelity to the game-planning that preceded a start, the participation IN that game-planning, or the work with the pitchers between starts (or in the offseason while the pitcher is in Mexico), there are things the Cubs want the catching spot to be about. Yes, the bat matters. And of course the defense matters. But it’s all that other stuff – the stuff that could make the pitching staff just a little bit better each day – that the Cubs want to prioritize, especially if it comes at a lower cost than, for example, catcher offense. So they have been happy to go with Gomes and Barnhart.
As I said, we’ll just have to observe how it works out for them, and for Contreras and the Cardinals, this season.