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The Cubs are sending P.J. Higgins to the Arizona Fall League. Why is this important?

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Some thoughts on developing a backup catcher.

PJ Higgins is Solar Sox bound
Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans

The Cubs are slow-playing their Arizona Fall League roster. No, I haven’t been informed why. Any reason I would put forth is conjecture. I’ll hunch away in later articles, but I want to give a full-length on each member assigned to the Solar Sox roster. These spots are earned, over a time in the pipeline. The extra chances, in front of opposing front offices, are essential for players trying to make a name for themselves. Today, I look at who P.J. Higgins is, and why you should care.

Higgins was selected out of Old Dominion as an infielder on the third day (12th round) of the 2015 draft. He made the transfer from infield to catcher, and is considered among the better defensive catchers in the Cubs pipeline. Bumped to Double-A, the bat has yet to respond. However, when a young player is used to getting the mental game of “catcher” under control, on occasion, the bat will take awhile to develop.

Higgins is Rule 5 eligible. As quite a few teams have bigger “catching depth” deficiencies than the Cubs, if Higgins were to be left unguarded, he would make perfect sense as a Rule 5 selection come December. With so many teams prioritizing the future over the present, acquiring Higgins for a $100,000 fee would be very tempting to a front office that has already written off 2019.

I’m writing this on Friday, August 31. On Thursday, the Cubs added Bobby Wilson in trade for Chris Gimenez and a PTBNL, or cash. As Gimenez wasn’t the guy the Cubs wanted as an emergency catcher, this post-season, the chronic problem of not having a reliable third catcher in the pipeline will cost cash or a player to be named, yet again.

The Cubs traded better future value in 2017 to add Alex Avila. When the Cubs had three valid catchers in 2016, adding a third wasn’t needed. In December 2014, Zack Godley, then considered a reliever, was dealt to the Diamondbacks to add Miguel Montero, then a starter.

The Cubs have been upgrading their catching since late 2011. As with many other phases of the pipeline, it needed upgrading. A problem with developing talent is that you don’t necessarily know if a piece is worth developing until after the expiration date. For instance, the Cubs added Cuban catcher Alexander Guerra about 11 months ago. The go-to question is, is Guerra any good? As usual, that won’t be known in full for another three or four seasons.

That’s how player development works. At the very best, you’re dealing with percentage chances. This guy is a 12 percent. That guy’s a 19 percent. Joey Bart is a 44 percent, but he went second in the draft. To get the guys who are more of a sure-thing, you almost have to have endured a lousy season to get there. That, or dominate the international scene.

Higgins seems to have the “backup catcher” mentality down fairly well. As such, he seems a reasonable investment for a 40-man roster spot in the off-season. (After the free agents brought on by a post-season chase go away, the roster will have plenty of space.) Having a third rostered catcher in the off-season is protocol. Higgins isn’t necessarily the ideal third catcher. However, if Victor Caratini is going to be the backup into the future (which is likely if the Cubs don’t get a trade offer that changes their mind), Higgins could be a perfectly good third option.

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I have two parting shots on back-up catchers. On is historical. The Cubs in the early 1970s were a good starting lineup with questionable depth. Randy Hundley was the go-to guy behind the dish. The reserves were not as desired. Here are looks at the 1970 and 1971 Cubs defensive pages on baseball-reference.com. The Cubs churned through six different starting catchers in 1971, with all starting between eight and 61 games behind the plate. Everything hinged on Hundley’s health.

As catching can go badly wrong, here are minor thumbnails on a number of the Cubs potential catchers for the next few seasons. The list is better than most teams likely have, but not as good as might be wanted/expected.

Taylor Davis

Not many complaints about his bat. He calls a relatively good game, especially for Triple-A. As to his ability to block pitches in the dirt, he’s a bit dicey. His caught stealing percentage in Triple-A is in the low 20’s. Davis can become a free agent this off-season. Many teams would offer him better advancement opportunities.

Will Remillard

A highly thought-of catcher, he’s had difficulty staying healthy. His first trip to the advanced minors have exposed his bat. He makes sense as an upper level reserve. He might, or might not, be protected in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft. If left unprotected, he might be claimed. Not likely a viable third catcher option.

Ian Rice

A bat-first catcher, along the lines of Davis. He becomes Rule 5 eligible this year, but is not likely to be taken in the MLB phase. Rice will certainly be protected in the minor-league phase. My guess is he becomes Taylor Davis for a few seasons. Low-20’s CS percentage in Double-A.

Erick Castillo

He’s a glove-first catcher who has been in the system six full seasons. My guess is that he signs a “successor contract” to stay in the pipeline another season. An organization withers without players like Castillo. Pitchers like throwing to him. Career 36 percent CS rate. Career .541 OPS. He’s a quality reserve, that should back up Rice in Iowa in 2019.

Jhonny Pereda

Became a thing this year. He’s in his sixth full-season in the pipeline. As such, he could become a free agent. However, he will likely sign a successor deal to stick around. He inspired my article a few weeks ago on Baseball And Joy. He has hit well in Myrtle Beach, and might well pair with Higgins again in 2019 in Tennessee. Career 39 percent CS rate.

Michael Cruz

I can see him as a MLB catcher. His offense is baked into a degree of power. He is a developing defender with a career 25 percent CS rate. For those of you old enough, I see some Mike LaValliere in Cruz, which isn’t bad for a seventh-round choice. Not Rule 5 eligible until 2019, he’s at Myrtle Beach already.

Tyler Pearson

In a different system, Pearson would get quite a few more looks. He’s a perfectly useful backup in a minor league pipeline. In a backfield matchup against Jon Lester in March 2017, he had two extra-base hits with a homer. Career .619 OPS and 27 percent CS percentage. I wish minor league players were paid more so players like Pearson could make a living playing baseball.

Miguel Amaya

The system’s top prospect, he should make for a very nice trade chip or cost-controlled roster piece for six full seasons plus. The defense is a bit ahead of the offense, which lagged much of the second half. It used to be the Cubs would hang their hat on Amaya, expect him to be the guy, and downplay adding catching for a few years. I’m glad that foolishness has gone away.

Higgins should be a usable emergency guy in the future. If the bat develops, all the better. However, a team will almost always need three catchers over a season. As such, Higgins makes sense for the Solar Sox, and the 40-man roster. That will get him plenty of time in Mesa in February and March to get familiar with the 2019 pitching staff.

Familiarity with the pitching staff is a very useful asset for a third catcher. That he will be cost-controlled for as far as the eye can see won’t hurt, either. If added to the roster, he will have until March/April of 2022 to stick with the team for good. Perhaps the bat develops by then.