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The Cubs’ backup backstop blues

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This is not the first year the Cubs have had a problem finding a decent backup catcher.

The Cubs are going to wear out Willson Contreras if they don’t find a suitable backup
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Among my earliest Cubs memories are of the 1971 season, exactly 50 years ago. The Cubs were on the fading end of their late 60s peak. Billy Williams and Ron Santo were still near their tops and Fergie Jenkins won the Cy Young Award, though center field was still a mystery. Joe Pepitone largely took over for Ernie Banks, even more so than in 1970. The bullpen was Phil Regan and guys Cubs fans didn’t want pitching in close games. However, what made 1971 what it was? The Cubs ran through an almost unfathomable six catchers. Are the 2021 Cubs to a point where they should surrender the future for a short-term catching backstop?

Randy Hundley had been absurdly reliable in 1968 and 1969. Between those two seasons, Hundley started an absurd 301 games as the Cubs catcher. He went the distance 283 times. In 1970, the workload took its toll. He played in 73 games, 70 started, and went the distance in 64, largely due to a serious knee injury. Into 1971, Hundley was supposed to be the primary, but missed the first few weeks, starting on an early West Coast trip. Hundley would play eight times, start eight times, but only go the distance once.

The early reserves were J.C. Martin and Ken Rudolph (the latter born in Rockford, Illinois, though he grew up in California). Rudolph played in 25 games as catcher. Martin played in 43. Neither was a long- or short-term answer, though Rudolph had been the internal hope for awhile. Frank Fernandez (a power-hitter with few other notables), Danny Breeden, and Chris Cannizzaro also caught. If anything happened late in the season, Cannizzaro was likely the primary. Fernandez had a .171 average, but a .902 OPS that season in 17 games. Rudolph’s OPS+ was 36. Breeden’s was 19. Cannizzaro settled in at 76 after being added from San Diego.

With the 1971 Cubs, the starter being injured was the problem. In 2021, Willson Contreras hasn’t been the problem. Instead, the backups have been the problem. Contreras has caught in 62 games, starting 60. Austin Romine has caught in five games. Tony Wolters eight, PJ Higgins six, and Jose Lobaton three. It’s very possible that someone else is used through the season to tie the 1971 club’s total. Is there a realistic reason or expectation for the Cubs to add a realistic catcher for the stretch?

As per usual, there is no online store where an MLB can go to purchase a 0.0 WAR catcher risk-free with no future loss. That’s one of my biggest problems with the entire “replacement player” mindset. For instance, back in the Hundley years, the Cubs had no place to shop to get a 0.0 WAR center fielder or catcher. The team has what they have, and that’s a selection/development thing. The Cubs haven’t drafted heavily in catching. With Victor Caratini, the backup wasn’t a problem, but financial mandate trades are what they are.

Had last season been normal, Miguel Amaya might have been ready to back up Contreras this season. It wasn’t, and he isn’t. If a team wants to avoid a positional cipher, it’s probably useful to have most positions internally accounted for, as often as possible, in the lower-, middle-, and upper-minors. Otherwise, you rely on free agents. Sometimes, those guys become Patrick Wisdom. Often, they don’t.

As of now, Tony Wolters and Taylor Gushue are the options at Triple-A Iowa. Wolters is probably a better gamble on defense than Gushue, who hits a bit better. And, as per usual, solving a problem long-term is better than solving it short term. Every summer, scads of good college teams have two-way catchers, that are useful defensively and offensively. It’s possible to game the draft system, and try for catchers every two or three years on the third day. Occasionally, you get lucky.

However, what seems the surest way to keep catching from being a repeating problem is to get one every other season or so in the sixth round or so. It doesn’t mean that any specific one will mad-dash sprint to MLB stardom. However, a good Power Four conference catcher should be able to reach Advanced-A rather easily, Double-A with some effort, and from there, it’s experience, commitment, and health. The joy with the draft pick is, they’re an internal option for at least six years. Maybe one or two of the selections misfire, but if you have the Taylor Davis position covered (emergency third string catcher), you might be able to shuffle through a few years with only three or four catchers.

I am very worried about Contreras staying healthy. He’s managed to start over 100 games in a season just once. He’s already at 60 this year with at least six or seven more likely this road trip.

Is trading quality to replace Lobaton necessary? I don’t think so. If a DFA wire option is available that upgrades the spot? Trade a cash fee in excess of the $50,000 waiver fee, and the team would likely prefer $70,000 to the waiver fee. Time it properly so the new guy can be acquired as a game ends, and Lobaton can be DFAd (and possibly returned to Iowa). But, no, trading a Max Bain for a throwaway catcher would seem absurd. Contact Tampa Bay about Wyatt Mathisen, or wait for someone else. If you’re peeved about the current backup situation, check to see where the earliest choice is in the July draft. And mind the catchers in Josh’s Minor League Wrap. Catching depth is best solved by having system catching depth.

I was a fan of Nick Dini when he was DFAd. The Royals kept him, and he’s in Triple-A for them now. I was interested in Jacob Nottingham, recently; he’s been waived three times this year. The Cubs could have had him for nothing, but now he’s in the Mariners system. Ideally, a catcher that has the defense thing down, and has some team cost control is best. Toss in minor league options, and it’s beautiful. In reality, though, keeping catchers upright can be a trick in itself. With the exception of Contreras, none have checked many of the boxes this season. Like in 1971.