Cubs

Welington Castillo believes Willson Contreras can handle the pressure of being everyday catcher with Cubs

Welington Castillo believes Willson Contreras can handle the pressure of being everyday catcher with Cubs

Welington Castillo knows what it takes to develop into a big-league catcher coming up through the Cubs system.

It wasn't that long ago that Castillo was seen as the catcher of the future for the Cubs, but now that title belongs to Willson Contreras in Triple-A Iowa. 

Meanwhile, Castillo has found a new home with the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he has flourished into one of the top offensive catchers in the league, hitting 24 homers with a .796 OPS in 122 games with the D-Backs.

Before the Cubs traded him away last May, Castillo got a chance to see what Contreras was all about and thinks the game's top catching prospect has what it takes to survive — and thrive — in Chicago.

"He was always good," Castillo said. "He's getting better as he matures and gets older and learns how to control the game a little bit more.

"He used to not call a good game when he wasn't feeling great, but now he's a little more mature. I think he's really close to being in Chicago. He can help them sometime soon."

Right now, Contreras is the top offensive performer in the Cubs system, regardless of position or level. 

He entered play Sunday leading all Cubs minor-leaguers in average (.335), homers (9), OPS (1.013) and tied for the lead with 39 RBI.

This coming after Contreras won the Southern League (Double-A) batting title with a .333 average last season.

"Willson certainly is off to a wonderful start in his Triple-A career," said Jason McLeod, Cubs senior vice president of player development and scouting. "He's continued to mature over the last three years. Specifically, these last 12 months have been really stellar for him."

Despite his success offensively, the Cubs still feel Contreras needs more time to develop as a catcher.

"He's still in that finishing phase in the minor leagues," McLeod said. "It's a totally different ballgame when you get up here and now you're trying to game plan for an opposing team. You've got this pitching staff that's here, with very high expectations of the guys behind the plate.

"Willson's aware of that. We're doing everything we can to prepare him down there for that time. But right now, a lot depends on what the news would be up here. We couldn't be happier with him."

The big-league Cubs are currently carrying three catchers on their 25-man roster, including veterans Miguel Montero and David Ross, who are well-respected by the organization's pitchers and coaches for their defense behind home plate and the way they call games.

Third-string catcher Tim Federowicz also has drawn rave reviews for his work behind the dish, so the Cubs have the luxury of giving Contreras plenty of time to develop in the minors.

From what he's seen, Castillo believes Contreras will have no trouble handling a veteran pitching staff in Chicago that currently leads the league in ERA by a wide margin.

"He's been playing a little winter ball back in Venezuela, so that will help him a lot, just learning how to handle a pitching staff," Castillo said. "That pitching staff, they know what they're doing, so they're gonna help him a lot, too."

The Cubs are in a different spot with prospects now than they were just last spring when Kris Bryant and Addison Russell came up. Now, a guy making his big-league debut doesn't have to be the focal point on a team with the best record in baseball and so many big names/personalities to deflect attention.

Castillo admits it's "a little tough" to handle the expectations of a fanbase that hasn't seen a championship in more than a century, but still thinks Contreras will have success.

"He's mature enough to not even think about it and just go out there and compete and have fun," Castillo said. "...Joe Maddon and [bench coach] Davey Martinez do a really, really good job with the young guys.

"They're really open and give the confidence to the players to go and have fun."

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

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USA TODAY

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.