Catchers in the Tri: Could Cubs Really Carry Three Backstops?

Picture if you will a beautiful May weekend in Chicago. The Cubs are playing solid baseball and are fighting for the division lead, having just moved ahead of their rivals from Pittsburgh with a Friday afternoon win. The bleachers are open and filled and the video board is displaying highlights of the two home runs Kris Bryant hit in the last game.

Saturday’s starter is Travis Wood and he takes the bump on Saturday, glorious beard barely swayed by a calm breeze blowing in from right. His battery-mate on the day is Miguel Montero, a man experiencing a career resurgence after moving from the dry desert to the muggy Midwest.

As the game wears on, Wood paints the edges of the zone, not as a renaissance artist but rather an apprentice. Ah, but that’s where Montero’s signature skill comes into play, framing each pitch to eliminating the errant brushstrokes from the discerning eye of the critic hovering just over his shoulder.

After seven strong innings, Wood leaves the game with a 2-run lead, tired and a bit disappointed that he’s out but satisfied with his performance nonetheless. As one of any number of power arms makes his way to the mound, the fans notice that the man squatting in pads appears to have changed as well. He’s a bit stockier, a bit more…beefy.

Geppetto Maddon has pulled the strings on two of his incredibly lifelike marionettes, swapping out both pitcher and catcher in an attempt to gain what Charlie Weis would call “a decided schematic advantage. The initial results aren’t that great though, as a couple close pitches go the batter’s way and the bad guys get a leadoff walk.

Montero would have framed those up better, say the grumblings from the assembled masses. And even those who don’t say it aloud are translating as much through the creaks and groans of the green plastic seats in which they are shifting uneasily.

The man at the plate now represents the tying run and a double will easily score the speedster who has already been allowed to reach. But then, after yet another close pitch passes just outside to the righty at bat, Wely moves with preternatural speed that belies his stature, firing a snap throw faster before the runner’s synapses fire.

A dive back to the bag, a swipe tag by Anthony Rizzo and a cloud of dust. An umpire shadow-boxing a right jab. Thousands of questioning armchair managers turn immediately to faithful followers as they rise to cheer the play. The palpable momentum carries the Cubs to a victory and it’s on to Sunday.

Staff ace Jon Lester is scheduled to go, so he’ll have his personal caddy accompanying him for the round; David Ross hasn’t played in a few days so he’s fresh despite his advanced age. But all the rest in the world can’t keep the career .233 hitter in the game after Lester leaves with a healthy lead. Castillo comes in again to help close things out, collecting an 8th-inning single in the process.

The Cubs have swept the Bucs and are 4 games over .500 nearly 6 weeks into the season. The sun is shining almost as brightly as Kris Bryant’s smile and the meatballs are simmering contentedly in Joe Maddon’s perfectly crafted vodka sauce. Were this a Busch beer ad, we’d be saying, “Boys, it doesn’t get any better than this.”

Ah, but is such an idyllic scenario really a possibility? Did Lloyd Christmas have a shot with Mary Samsonite? Yes, I’m sayin’ there’s a chance! CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney, who, along with the Daily Herald’s Bruce Miles, is the gold standard of traditional-media Cubs coverage, has an excellent piece on Castillo’s ability to find a place on the team, which is what set me to thinking.

Dangerous, I know, but while we all would have said Beef was over/done the moment the Cubs traded for Montero, the incumbent catcher has acquitted himself quite well in spring training. Then again, it’s entirely likely that the front office is simply allowing him to pad his value while keeping their go-forward pair of vets fresh.

In speaking recently on the current trifecta, Maddon seemed to be advocating for the possibility of moving forward with an unconventional roster:

“If you guys want to create conjecture, just think about three catchers and how that’s going to manipulate how the rest of the group’s going to look. I think Welington Castillo’s had a great camp. He’s a very, very good catcher.

“How does it all fit? It’s a jigsaw puzzle, obviously. (And) you got to start making different thoughts and determinations in a variety of different ways.”

“You’d have to have a lot of versatility among the rest of the group if you want to do that. But if you look at the catchers that we have in Montero and Ross, there’s reasons to get them out of the game late in the game, whether it’s pinch-hitting or pinch-running.

“And then just think about Wely’s tools. He’s a premier thrower — one of the best out there right now.

“And then furthermore, there’s always the threat of injury. Always. And what is probably one of the most difficult spots in all of baseball to find somebody that you like? I would say catching.

“I’m not saying that Wely is on the team, (but) you have to think that way as you’re putting the whole thing together.”

The situation I described earlier was certainly manipulated to leverage the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals in question here, but individual talents of the Cubs catchers do conveniently complement one another. Montero’s no spring chicken and he’s more than 6 years younger than fellow newcomer Ross.

Furthermore, the former D-Back All-Star has battled through knee and back issues, both of which can be red flags for a man who’s forced to squat for hours at a time. And I don’t want to make this a pile-on session, but one has to consider the fact that the lefty-batting Montero has been nothing short of awful in his splits against left-handed pitching.

While he’s sitting at .234 for his career, he has been below the Mendoza line in 3 of the last 4 seasons (.259 in 2012). Castillo, on the other hand, has raked lefties to the tune of .306 (against an overall .256 mark).

And then you’ve got David Ross, a backup who has played more than 62 games only twice (90 in 2006 and 112 in 2007, both with Cincinnati) in a 13-year career. He had a really nice run in Atlanta from 2009-12, during which he hit around .270. Over the past two seasons in Boston, though, he batted less than .200.

I wrote recently about how the Cubs are assembling a team of interchangeable parts, which is what Maddon alluded to above in terms of having a lot of versatility. But even with guys like Tommy La Stella and Arismendy Alcantara, it’s going to be awfully difficult to roster three guys who are locked in at one spot.

Still, I’d love to see the Cubs find a way to make this work. Heading into the offseason, I had figured that they’d try to land Ross as, for lack of a better term, bait to lure Jon Lester. But then the ace signed before his presumed personal caddy and it appeared that the graying catcher would play out his days in sunny San Diego.

Then when Ross changed his mind and came to Chicago, I kind of felt like a kid who had just received a duplicate birthday present. Don’t get me wrong, David Ross is a great guy to have on your team; it’s just that he felt a little unnecessary at that point.

But despite the issues evident in both Montero and Ross, and the fact that Castillo seems to be a near-perfect foil for their shortcomings, carrying three catchers seems like too tall an order for even master puppeteer Joe Maddon to pull off.

Then again, it’s possible that we could see this triumvirate remain intact if the front office doesn’t receive a suitable offer Castillo. Here’s when I reiterate my desire to see the Cubs break camp with all three, if for no other reason than to watch Maddon’s strategy unfold in a way few have seen before.

And just think: if Kyle Schwarber continues to develop, we get to spend next spring combining this talk of catchers with the ubiquitous service time manipulation conversation. Is that what Rob Bass and DJ E-Z Rock meant by Joy and Pain?

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