In 2007, the Cubs had a mess at catcher. In 2008, the Cubs had one of the best starting catchers and one of the best backup catchers in baseball. What could we have in 2009?
At starting catcher, you can't do much better than Gevoany Soto. Ryan Doumit hit about as well, but doesn't come close to Geovany's defensive abilities. Soto's not yet in the class of the other great young catchers, led by Mauer and McCann, but he could conceivably join that class.
Henry Blanco was the perfect backup catcher to Michael Barrett, doing everything Barrett couldn't do. Last season, Blanco had one of his best seasons with the bat, having a better season at the plate than Victor Martinez.
Soto isn't yet arbitration eligible and the Cubs hold a 3 M option on Blanco with a 300K buyout. What can we expect from these players for 2009?
Blanco's a known quantity getting older and a serious risk for injuries. His career line of .227/.289/.364 is probably a fair 2009 expectation. Obviously, his defense is his selling point.
Soto's splits basically had him alternating between being a 1.000+ OPS hitter for two 5-6 week stretches and a mid-.700s OPS hitter the rest of the time. Did Soto's 27 games started in May wear him down and explain the down months in hitting? Or was Soto just lucky the first 6 weeks and in August? Or is this just the normal ups and downs of a season? Given Soto's track record last year, if Soto gets enough rest in 2009, I'm inclined to expect a slight uptick in performance, a .290/.375/.525 season.
As a quick aside, let's be clear - that would make Soto one of the best hitters - if not the single best hitter - on the team next year. Should Soto be batting third? I don't think putting that kind of pressure on him is a good idea. He needs to be able to focus on the pitchers and not worry if he has some down months hitting. As a young player with other all-star veterans on the squad, Soto can be used effectively batting 6th or so. Doing so also keeps the lineup from a major shakeup with Soto rests.
Is there a trade of Soto that makes sense? Probably not in the real world. There are no good catchers on the free agent market to replace Soto. So we'd want to get a catcher back in the trade. We could theorize about swapping Soto for Mauer to save the Twins money and get the Cubs a lefty and/or lead-off hitter - but Mauer's the face of the Twins. Soto's not going anywhere.
What about Hank White? Should we exercise his option, renegotiate with him, or buy him out? I'm of the opinion that we should buy him out and find a backup catcher that better complements Soto. We don't need a defensive replacement at C. What we could use is a left-handed bat and there's a good one who knows the NL Central out as a free agent - Javier Valentin. Besides Valentin, there's Jason Varitek, Josh Bard, and Gregg Zaun all out as switch-hitting Cs this year. But Valentin's got the splits v. RHP and he's also the one most likely to accept a backup job with minimal ABs.
Of course, we've already got a switch-"hitting" C in Koyie Hill who could fill the role cheaply. He could hold the job down until right-handed Welington Castillo is ready.
What do you think?