While Chicago Cubs’ general manager Jed Hoyer recently lamented the lack of quality catching depth in the team’s minor league system, the position appears to be in good hands at the big league level, where Welington Castillo is making a compelling case to become a member of the Cubs’ rebuilding core. As the season has grinded into August, Castillo, who plays a position that leaves many wilting in the summer heat, has had a resurgent second half. His efforts have not gone unnoticed by the Cubs’ coaching staff.
Manager Dale Sveum, not prone to hyperbole, praised Castillo as having the potential to be the best defensive catcher in baseball and credited his proficiency in calling games and engaging the pitching staff and his improvement as a hitter. In a recent interview on the Cubs’ radio pregame show, first base coach Dave McKay, who served as a St. Louis Cardinals’ coach from 1996 to 2011, compared Castillo’s potential to that of Cardinals’ All-Star catcher Yadier Molina. So, is the praise supported by the performance? We believe it is.
Castillo had brief stints with the Cubs in 2010 and 2011, but it was not until the Cubs dealt Geovany Soto to the Texas Rangers on July 31, 2012 that Castillo assumed the starting position. Last season, in 52 games and 190 plate appearances, Castillo hit .265 with five home runs, eleven doubles, sixteen runs and 22 RBI. He walked seventeen times and struck out 51 and finished with an on base percentage (OBP) of .337 and slugging percentage of .418. He threw out 25% of attempted base stealers and had a fielding percentage of .981 and DWARP (Defensive Wins Above Replacement Player) of .5.
This season, Castillo got off to a great start offensively, hitting .312 in April, but beneath the surface there were clear problems with his approach at the plate. He walked only once in April and only ten times through June 30. However, in July, Castillo matched his season total of ten walks, and through August 11, he already has eight. The improved plate discipline has led to a spike in his season OBP to .360. Overall, he entered Sunday’s game batting .278 with four home runs, eighteen doubles 21 RBI, 31 runs and 28 walks. His slugging percentage has dipped to .381, but a fifth home run against the White Sox’s Chris Sale on May 28 was eliminated from his stat-line when that game was postponed due to rain. While his offensive statistics are largely on par with last year’s, his approach of late suggests that this season’s production is his floor and that his ceiling is potentially much higher.
Nevertheless, defensively is where Castillo has taken an Olympic-sized leap. While his fielding percentage is just eighteenth among qualifying catchers in the major leagues at .986, somewhat paradoxically, he ranks a commanding first among catchers in DWARP at 2.3. In fact, the next closest in the DWARP department is the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Russell Martin at 1.7. His rate of throwing out base stealers of 29% is also a respectable eighth. Castillo’s gaudy statistical achievements have occurred amid a challenging environment for a catcher charged with familiarizing himself with the weaknesses and strengths of every pitcher on the staff. The Cubs set a franchise record this season for pitchers used prior to the All-Star break and have added several new faces in the second half of the season.
By no means are we suggesting that Castillo will necessarily evolve into the same quality of catcher as his hero, perennial all-star catcher Molina, who, while currently on the disabled list, is hitting .330 with eight home runs and 54 RBI to complement a .374 OBP and .479 slugging percentage. Molina, 30, is in his ninth season as the Cardinals’ regular catcher and tenth season overall. But the potential is there. In his first full season as the Cardinals’ catcher, in 2005, Molina hit just .216 with a .321 OPB and .358 slugging percentage, all lower than Castillo’s 2013 numbers. Admittedly, Molina was only 22 years of age compared to Castillo’s 26, and the former also threw out a sensational 64% of attempted base stealers (his career mark is 44%). But perhaps the only man, McKay, who has spent time up close gauging the physical and mental makeup of both backstops, believes that Castillo has the potential to be that caliber of player.
Whether or not Castillo, who will not be arbitration eligible until 2015 and a free agent until 2018, is the next Molina is debatable. What is incontrovertible is that Castillo is flirting with becoming a core member of the Cubs’ rebuilding plan. Castro, Rizzo, Wood, Samardjiza and Lake need to move over to make room for Welington Castillo at the table for presumptive members of the Cubs’ core.