Beef: It’s What’s For Dinger

The Cubs’ offense was struggling Tuesday night, having collected only 2 hits through 7 innings off of Reds starter Anthony DeScalfini. Enter Welington Castillo, who came on in the 8th to pinch hit for Zak Rosscup and replace starting catcher Miguel Montero. The ensuing 2-run shot represented the only scoring for the home team and was the first by a Cubs catcher this season.

While it helped that former Cub Kevin Gregg — already well-renowned in Chicago for his inability to shut down hitters at Wrigley — was on the mound, that shouldn’t take anything away from Beef’s ability to come into the game cold and drive a pitch over the wall in left-center.

Beyond just Tuesday’s homer in a pinch, Castillo has easily been the most consistent among the Cubs’ trio of catchers, despite seeing only sporadic playing time. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise though; it’s actually very similar to the scenario I laid out when justifying the idea of a backstop trifecta back in in spring training.

So far, the experiment appears to be going according to plan. Each of the three catchers has gotten at least 1 start and each has appeared in at least 4 of the first 7 games, with first-string Montero receiving the lion’s share of of starts (4) and at-bats (15). David Ross has started 2 games and compiled 6 AB’s, while Wely has 1 and 6 to his name thus far.

Admittedly, these are all very small sample sizes, so it’s important to take early-season production with a grain of salt. But considering that Wely’s heroic home run alone matches the hit totals of either of his catching brethren, it might be time to reevaluate the situation.

When the Cubs acquired Montero and Ross, everyone — myself included — thought Castillo would be the odd man odd. The theory was certainly sound, as rostering three catchers is almost unheard of. And given the fact that Castillo still has a great deal of value, it stood to reason that he’d be traded to a team in need.

When I was first made aware of the Ross signing, I was pretty excited about it, though not because of what he’d actually contribute to the team. I saw a guy who had the ability to basically choose his landing spot, and who had reportedly chosen San Diego already, make the decision to come and play for the Cubs. Aging vets don’t do that unless they feel they can win. Of course, $5 million for 2 years of part-time work doesn’t hurt.

But now I’m starting to reassess my own excitement. Again, it’s early, but Ross has about as much appeal as a black banana; he’s looking more overripe than just experienced. My view of him hasn’t changed simply because he’s not great with the stick; the Cubs have had light-hitting backups before: Hank White, Bako, John Baker.

Rather, my concern with having the ol’ graybeard squatting behind the plate every fifth day is the impact, or lack thereof, on the man he’s catching. Despite some comments to the contrary, it’s clear that Ross was brought in to be Jon Lester’s personal caddy. Unless it’s just a coincidence that his starts lined up with the lefty’s.

Signing the veteran catcher was a move that was supposed to dovetail with the much more expensive deal handed to his former battery-mate in Boston. The numbers from their time together there bore that out, but thus far in this young season, the pair hasn’t been able to rediscover that rhythm.

True, Lester’s 7.84 ERA should soon begin to regress toward the mean and it’s possible that Ross will provide a steadying influence as that settling down takes place. But is his ability to guide the Cubs’ new ace appreciably better than that of either Castillo or Montero? I get the whole framing concept, but Lester’s a guy who should be getting enough of his own calls by now to mitigate some of that, right?

Up until now, it seems the question with what to do about the third wheel involved little more than getting the right offer on Castillo. That would not only clear a roster spot and a little cash, but would also net a farm-filling prospect or two in return from a team in need of a solid offensive presence behind the plate. But now I’m starting to wonder whether that’s really in the Cubs’ best interest.

Perhaps reaching a high-water mark of 2 games above .500 for the first time since 2009 was just too heady for me and I started getting the vapors after just 6 games. But I read something other day regarding the Cubs’ other positional logjam and a potential solution that I think bears mentioning here as well.

BP Wrigleyville’s Jeff Lamb recently wrote a nice piece stating the case for trading Starlin Castro, and while I’m kind of a get-off-my-lawn guy when it comes to that topic, I gave it a read. Lamb holds that the team should move Castro relatively soon in order to extract maximum value relative to his contract and performance. But wait, Evan, I thought you were talking about not trading Beef.

As an aside, I love the idea that I’m using Lamb to talk about Beef. As for sort of arguing against myself, yes, you have a point. But what Jeff wrote is that the timing of a trade should be based upon the team’s performance, as the return they get will likely not be one that would provide immediate help. In other words, if they’re contending, Castro provides more immediate value as a Cub and can be traded in the offseason to provide the most future value.

I see the case with Castillo as the same. As the most consistent offensive performer behind the plate, he gives the Cubs the most value by staying in pinstripes…for now at least. Ross, on the other hand, appears to be far too expendable. Of course, so does Montero at this point, but I don’t think they’d be wise to eat that money for nothing. I mean, you’d have to be in some dire straights to make a move like that.

I’m not advocating an immediate move, mind you, but I think the club needs to seriously consider cutting David Ross loose if his intrinsic value doesn’t manifest itself in a hurry. The financial hit won’t be too much to bear and I’m sure Jon Lester isn’t going to walk out the door if it happens. Then you move forward with your two best catchers, freeing up a roster spot for Kris Bryant or reliever to aid that well-used group.

While this could be a case of me essentially hitting the gas and brake at the same time, getting excited and then depressed over the results from only 7 games, I do feel that this three-catcher thing is going to need to be resolved before long. Then again, many were saying that same thing at the start of spring training. Then in the middle of spring training. Then as the Cubs were ready to leave Mesa.

Joe Maddon’s an interesting guy possessed of more than his fair share of ingenuity and the front-office brain trust know what it’s doing, so I’m more than happy to roll with whatever scenario they feel is best for the team. But the more I see, the more I believe that Beef is indeed what’s for dinger.

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