I Could Not Be More Impressed By Miguel Amaya, Which Leads to Natural Questions

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I Could Not Be More Impressed By Miguel Amaya, Which Leads to Natural Questions

Chicago Cubs

I have been so impressed by Chicago Cubs catching prospect Miguel Amaya this week.

Considering what he’s dealing with: it’s not just a call up to the big leagues, it’s not just a call up to the big leagues straight from Double-A, and it’s not just a call up from Double-A for a guy who has missed so much time the last three years, it’s all those things for a CATCHER. A guy whose primary job with this Cubs team is expected to be managing a pitching staff and ensuring maximum performance from a group of Major League pitchers he’s never worked with before!

Such an impressive young man, and to look the part so completely – as he clearly has – is something that has me feeling really good about the future of the Cubs catching position in 2024 and beyond if Amaya can stay healthy.

Consider what Hayden Wesneski said about his catcher yesterday:

That is EFFUSIVE praise. Frankly, I was surprised Amaya was starting yesterday’s game at all, given that you’re talking about a rookie pitcher who is still trying to find his own footing. Amaya had to catch him, and then also face the reigning dang Cy Young winner in Sandy Alcántara! That was a game I very much had pegged as a Tucker Barnhart start, so I think it says a lot about how the coaches and the organization feel about Amaya that he got that start.

Of course, Amaya was later pulled from the game for a pinch-running Seiya Suzuki (weird choice, to be honest), leaving Barnhart in to finish the game, which he did quite literally by striking out to end it.

That’s not me needlessly hammering Barnhart, who by all accounts is a very good teammate and does work very well with the pitchers. It’s just me noting how the duo of catchers stood out yesterday.

So, in turn, I know the immediate question that folks will have: when Yan Gomes returns this week, why not just let Barnhart go, and have Amaya stay on as the 1B to Gomes’s 1A catching job? It has to have crossed your mind.

Ultimately I’m going to tell you that I don’t think it will, or even necessarily should, happen right now. But not because I’m not loving how Amaya has looked as a catcher and as a disciplined hitter with power.

So far this year, Barnhart has hit an anemic .186/.234/.209/23 wRC+ at the plate. That, after a huge downturn in 2022 at the plate for the now 32-year-old, has you wondering if maybe this – or slightly better, but still awful – is just where the bat is now. By contrast, Amaya has looked capable at the plate in his early duties, and has hit very well at every stop in the minor leagues, including dominating at Double-A before his call up.

I’m hesitant to draw conclusions about performance based on such minuscule samples. But I’ll acknowledge that it’s entirely possible that Amaya is already, currently, a superior catching option for the 2023 Cubs than Barnhart, even accounting for the soft factors. We know the bat is superior. There’s just no way that’s going to be debatable. Receiving skills and defense? My eye says Amaya is probably on par with Barnhart, or at least in the ballpark. So the question is whether Barnhart’s work with the pitchers between starts, his game-calling skill, his ability to read batters and help the pitchers make in-game adjustments, and his general leadership/support of pitchers (the soft factors) is dramatically better than Amaya at the moment.

I think it’s possible that, even if Barnhart is currently better in those areas than Amaya, it isn’t enough to make up for the difference in the bats. It’s possible that Amaya, present day, helps the Cubs win more games than Barnhart.

But even if that’s true, that isn’t the only part of the calculus here on how to proceed with Amaya.

The Cubs could keep Amaya up as a third catcher, of course, but I tend to think they will want him making regular starts so his development work can continue (he has missed so much time, especially behind the plate, that he needs the regular work). If Amaya stays up as the third catcher AND is getting regular starts, well, then what is the point of keeping Barnhart? I just don’t think three catchers is the route the Cubs would go here in May. I think it is – for now – an either Amaya or Barnhart decision on the 26-man roster when Gomes returns.

If the Cubs were to let Barnhart go now, they lose him from the organization. I suppose he could come back later on if there’s no other gig out there for him, but he’d likely find a job elsewhere as depth – all while the Cubs pay him for both this and next year, at a $3.3 million AAV. If Barnhart is totally cooked, that wouldn’t much matter, but can we know for sure that’s the case? Are we sure that he’s not still very good at working with pitchers, and very good on defense? A guy you’d still like to have around?

I’m framing it like that because the Cubs *CAN* keep Amaya in the organization as a third catcher, even if he’s optioned to Triple-A Iowa after this stint. So if there is another catching injury in a week or three, the Cubs still have Amaya to backfill. If the Cubs instead kept Amaya up and sent Barnhart packing, and then there is an injury later on, they would be further tapping into depth that might be worse than Barnhart (currently, that would be veteran Dom Nuñez, who is not hitting well at all at Triple-A Iowa). Considering Gomes’s age and Amaya’s injury history, I definitely would have some reluctance about punting Barnhart this early in the season.

So, for me, that’s what it comes down to: I worry that, even if punting Barnhart this early could help the Cubs win an extra game or two in May, there’s a risk that it could cost them way more than that in June and beyond if there were a catcher injury or injuries. If it were July or August, maybe this conversation looks different. For now, I think it would be the best approach to let Amaya keep starting regularly and working with pitchers at Triple-A Iowa. You hang onto Barnhart and hope that (1) he can right the ship AT LEAST SLIGHTLY at the plate, and (2) his work with the pitching staff pays off in the long run as he gets more and more familiar with them.

A final thought that I offer NOT as a comparison between the players, but instead just as a note about how small-sample numbers can look really bad for veteran back-up catchers: David Ross hit .176/.267/.252/33 wRC+ in 2015, the first year of his two-year deal with the Cubs. He was 38 at that time, and definitely looked toast at the plate. But he still provided significant value behind the plate and in the clubhouse, and then wound up bouncing back offensively in 2016.

Hey, maybe we see a little bit of a repeat this time around? No, I’m not predicting a Barnhart bounce-back in 2024! I’m saying maybe Amaya goes back down for now, and then comes back up to stay in August and September as a third catcher, much like Willson Contreras did in 2016 with Ross and Miguel Montero.

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.