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Cubs Pipeline Alchemy: The Chris Gimenez problem

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What’s the best way to develop a backup catcher?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, Chris Gimenez was designated for assignment. This article had been about ready for a week. I finished it off once Victor Caratini was put in Witness Protection on Tuesday night.

The article was written with Gimenez still on the roster. So, a few things are a bit dated, such as Caratini now being in MLB. Nonetheless, the basis of the article applies more now than when I originally wrote it. The Cubs are chasing value in the 25th roster spot far too often. With Caratini as a trade piece, as well, developing reserve catchers is a piece of the puzzle the team needs to do better. As such, here is what I submitted on Tuesday night before Gimenez was designated.

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The 2017 season had its quirks. Bad first innings. An untimely rainout in October. The Mike Freeman problem. 2018 has had its quirks as well. Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant slumps and injuries. Games against the Reds. The Chris Gimenez problem. Today’s is mainly about defining the Gimenez Problem, and penciling a way to fix it long-term.

Before I run through the Gimenez Problem, I should pinpoint the Freeman Problem. Cubs fans have become so used to having Addison Russell, Javier Baez, and even Starlin Castro at shortstop, they’re completely unused to having a player with less defensive range or arm strength there. To fix the problem of Freeman getting too many innings at short long-term, the Cubs should internally upgrade at shortstop. Among other things to address this, they drafted Nico Hoerner in the first round in June.

The Gimenez Problem revolves around the backup catcher spot. Last season and this, the Cubs have been somewhat underserved initially with their backup catcher. While some will call for a return from Victor Caratini (which has now happened), or a minor trade, if a problem looks to be becoming chronic, it is best solved (long-term) internally.

Catching can be internally added in six main ways, if the term “internally” is taken to incorporate players with long-term team control filling the position. The six ways are through the international spending cycle, through the draft, after the draft, trades, position changes, and the waiver wire. Dismissing any of the options as invalid reduce the likelihood of internally solving the problem.

While trades are popular, they are often short-term fixes. They are often for players to be free agents after the season. While those can clearly work, the better plan seems to be a cohesive structure to add talent to the pipeline, multiple times per year, that could fill the reserve catcher spot for a relatively extended period of time. After all, adding Alex Avila and Justin Wilson cost Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes.

To beat you to the punch twice, I’ll define a backup catcher as a MLB player who often starts 30-50 games per season. More than that is usually a time-share. Less than that looks like a third-string type. (Which isn’t a horrible thing, either.)

Similarly, people would rather locate “starting catchers” than reserves. Those tend to go quite early in the draft. For instance, when San Francisco added Joey Bart with the second pick in June, that essentially required a horrible season to add him. I doubt Cubs fans want to go there again soon.

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Who am I considering “a backup catcher?” While folk-hero David Ross is the most memorable answer, he creates an unfair backdrop. While he often started between 30 and 50 games, using the seventh-round from the University of Florida pre-supposes that the reserve backstop will homer in his last post-season at-bat in the World Series. Which is unfair. Instead, I look to a younger Eric Kratz.

Kratz came from the baseball factory of Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, Virginia). In his early MLB seasons, he was traded for Brad Lincoln and Danny Valencia. Recently, he has become a bit of the bauble for backup catchers. If a team absolutely needs a catcher to fill in, they grab Kratz. The 38-year-old often starts below 30 games per year, but serves as a starting point for discussions.

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A bit of history. In the 2010 draft, the Cubs selected Micah Gibbs from Louisiana State University (Baton Rouge) in the third round. Gibbs never developed the bat or glove necessary to push successfully into the upper minors. Gibbs was a very reasonable choice but never blossomed as a professional. His peak was 13 games in Triple-A.

Since then, the Cubs have greatly upgraded their catching depth in the pipeline. Some were names signed “under prior management”. Many have been signed since late-2011. All six above methods have been at least attempted, and some with greater success than others. However, now would seem a good time to assess the current state of the catchers in the pipeline.

Triple-A Iowa

Victor Caratini (added in trade as a prospect). Yeah, you probably know about him. And now he’s back in Chicago.

Taylor Davis (signed after the 2010 draft as a free agent). He had a cup of coffee in Chicago last season. Davis is a bit of a bat-first backstop, which isn’t necessarily ideal.

Double-A Tennessee

Ian Rice (Third day draft pick). A bit similar to Davis, he has gotten through the system much quicker. He might be a Rule 5 option for a team who believes in him enough. Otherwise, he represents a replacement if Davis or Caratini head elsewhere.

Erick Castillo (International signing). Has the defensive chops, but the bat lags a bit.

Will Remillard (Third Day Draft Pick). Seems useful offensively and defensively. His challenge is staying healthy.

Advanced-A Myrtle Beach

PJ Higgins (Position change). A college infielder, Higgins may be the best back-up option north of South Bend. Particularly if the bat develops.

Jhonny Pereda (International). He has had a very good season in Myrtle Beach. The bat and game-calling have both taken a step forward in 2018.

A-Level South Bend

Miguel Amaya (International). Likely the best offensive prospect in the pipeline, the teen has been better at the plate in the Midwest League, and the defense hasn’t lagged much, either.

Michael Cruz (Second Day Draft Pick). Selected for his bat, his game-calling seems reasonable. His defense improves with opportunities.

The Short-Season/Rookie Levels have names with upside, as well. However, this will do for now. Others could fill in at the lower levels, as well. Teddy Payne and Tyler Pearson are among the options.

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Assess and Evaluate

As you look at the catchers atop the system, are you seeing any concerns regarding developing backup catchers? As an organization puts together a plan framework, it’s brilliant if it works. If it’s close to working, but not quite, some tweaks are in order.

The Cubs catching pipeline is quite good. It’s much improved. It’s better than most. However, it hasn’t delivered yet. Is the problem a lack of time? Or is the problem a lack of the right types of players being brought in?

The guys moving through are often doing well, but the Ross/Kratz types haven’t availed themselves yet. And the Cubs have adjusted the types of catchers they’re bringing into the pipeline. Slightly, but those are the adjustments that seem needed.

The guys in the upper pipeline tend to be bat-first. You should dig the offense, for sure. However, to be the traditional back-up catcher type, the defense should be more of a given.

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This June, the Cubs added three catchers to the pipeline. July will bring more through international signings. However, I focus today on the three added, to see if anything is noticeably trending.

Hunter Taylor (2018 Draft-23rd Round)

Taylor entered 2018 in a catching timeshare for South Carolina (Columbia) in the Southeastern Conference. He flipped into the starting role with a .813 OPS, but his defense remained more important than his bat. Slowed late by a broken bone in his back, he played through into the Field Of 64.

Brennon Kaleiwahea (2018, Signed after the draft)

Tennessee Tech (Cookeville) wasn’t supposed to win over 40 games this year. However, they did, and Kaleiwahea was their primary catcher. The Cubs drafted and signed his team-mate Ethan Roberts, and added Kaleiwahea around the time they signed Roberts. Likely for a drop in the bucket.

Kaleiwahea had an OPS of 1.005 as a senior. Adding him gives a chance to see him develop on offense and defense. And, at the very worst, catch some pitchers in spring training in Mesa.

Caleb Knight (2018, Signed after the draft)

As a junior in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Knight had an OPS of .943. For whatever reason, he slumped badly in 2018 for Virginia (Charlottesville), and was signed just before starting on an Independent League journey.

Adding Knight gives the Cubs a chance to see if his junior or senior season was the outlier.

***

The three players recently added represent being good defenders. Perhaps defense-first types, even. In the long, slow slog up the pipeline, there will be plenty of time to learn to hit to the extent that is required from a back-up catcher. As you likely know, that hurdle is relatively low.

Which gets to the final question you might have asked up front. “Why even bother developing reserve catchers?”

Reserve catchers can be added and developed somewhat cheaply. Starters are a bit polar, in that they are blatantly obvious (and often unobtainable) or accidents (see Willson Contreras). If the Cubs can internally develop back-up backstops, they can see three possible benefits.

They can be traded, as Kratz was traded a few times.

They can be optionable depth, without the need to trade for a Kratz or Alex Avila.

They can, actually, play. In games. They can become long-term holds. Until the next one or two happen along, in which case one or more go elsewhere. To resume the cycle.

It’s very difficult for a major league organization to have too much catching. When options can be added late in the draft, after the draft, on waivers, internationally, by trade as prospects, or through position change, adding catchers regularly should be a given.

Whether you think Kratz, Ross, or someone else is more prototype, getting low-priority players to MLB service is a feather in the cap. The Cubs are getting better at the concept, but they aren’t finished improving.

If you’re the type to look at minor league box scores, look for who the catcher was in the game. (In the Dominican League, the Cubs often split time in-game to get more players chances every day.) If the name in the box score is unfamiliar, look him up. Where’s he from?

Getting more anonymous-sounding players to the upper levels aids system depth. Unsatisfied with their improved depth behind the plate, the Cubs are attempting to add college veterans with College post-season experience to their talent pipeline. Eventually, it might limit the Gimenez Problem in the future.