Miguel Montero: The Next Piece of the Cubs Puzzle

Clubs rebuild. It’s a part of the process. Just look at what’s happening in Oakland right now. Every year, franchises begin rebuilds, continue rebuilds and occasionally start them all over again when the first one sinks into the swamp.

Rebuilds take patience. They can be exciting, and they can be frustrating. Those feelings are not mutually exclusive, in this case. The start of a rebuild can be exciting, because it ushers what is oftentimes a much-needed change in direction. There are typically big transactions that occur at the start of a rebuild, and big transactions are exciting.

The middle part of the rebuild sucks, and is the frustrating part. For several years, the on-field major league product is bad, and watching bad teams isn’t fun. The hopes of the team lie in minor league prospects, and minor league prospects don’t always pan out. When they don’t pan out is when the rebuild starts all over again, and that’s the worst kind of rebuild.

But as exciting as the beginning of a rebuild can be, nothing tops the realization of a successful rebuild and the expectation of imminent success that looms. Years of patience are awarded by the arrival of top prospects reaching their potential, coupled with a couple of marquee additions to compliment the shiny budding plants that are the homegrown prospects. The successful rebuild culminates with the flip of a switch, seemingly overnight, from “rebuild” mode to “contend.” It’s as liberating a switch as there is to be flipped as a front office executive of a major league franchise, and it’s a switch the Cubs are flipping as we speak.

A year after the promotion of top prospects Jorge Soler and Javier Baez and the breakouts of Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta, with the arrival of Kris Bryant imminent, the Cubs look to push their chips in the middle for 2015 and beyond.

They’ve been rumored for one of the big three free agent starting pitchers – Jon Lester, Max Scherzer and James Shields – since before free agency began. Their rotation, after Arrieta, is very thin, so it will take more than just one of those aces to build a competitive staff. The Cubs shored up one of those holes by signing former-Cub Jason Hammel to a two-year, $20 million contract yesterday afternoon.

The Cubs signed Hammel to a two-year contract less than 12 months after they signed him to a one-year contract, which nicely reflects how the state of the organization has changed in that time. Last offseason, when the Cubs inked Hammel, they did so as a rebuilding club. The plan with Hammel was the same as the plan with Scott Feldman a year prior: sign him to a cheap, one-year deal, fix him, and flip him at the deadline for prospects. Feldman netted the Cubs Arrieta, who pitched like a legitimate ace last year. Hammel helped the Cubs acquire Addison Russell. But this Hammel, this one is here to stay. This one is to help the Cubs win now, rather than in the future.

As is the hiring of Joe Maddon. As is the trade for Miguel Montero, which the Cubs completed on Tuesday afternoon, sending a couple of low level pitching prospects to Arizona. Welington Castillo is the current catcher for the Cubs, and he’s actually outproduced Montero by a considerable margin the last couple years, racking up 5.6 WAR to just 2.1 WAR from Montero. But there’s a few things about that.

First, Castillo has likely overperformed at the plate in that time, while Montero has likely underperformed. After four years of above-league average production at the plate, Montero’s offense plummeted in 2013 as he dealt with a lower back injury. He improved in a healthy 2014, but was still below-league average, thanks to a .275 BABIP. Montero has a career .306 BABIP, and while his age likely brings that down a few ticks, there isn’t much that’s changed in his batted ball profile to warrant such a steep dropoff. Steamer projects Montero’s BABIP and wRC+ to return to league-average levels in 2015 and forecasts him as a +3 WAR player. Castillo, on the other hand, has had his offensive numbers inflated by a .347 BABIP in 2013 that was likely an aberration. Steamer projects Castillo for a 95 wRC+ in 2015, and forecasts him as a +2 WAR player.

But there’s something that our WAR figures — and the Steamer projections — leave out, and it’s the biggest difference between the two catchers. You know what it is. Of course, it’s pitch framing. By StatCorner’s calculations, Montero was the most valuable framer in the league last year, at +24 runs. According to BaseballProspectus, Montero’s framing was worth about +19 runs, putting him in the top 10. Castillo, on the other hand, was valued at -24 runs by StatCorner and -11 by BP, putting him in the bottom five. No matter how much weight you put into the framing numbers, or which site’s formula you trust more, it’s clear: in going from Castillo to Montero, the Cubs would be going from one of the league’s worst framers to one of the best.

Examples of balls, according to the PITCHf/x strike zone, that went for strikes with Montero behind the plate:

mon2

mon3

And some examples of strikes, according to the PITCHf/x strike zone, that went for balls with Castillo behind the plate. The differences are subtle, but then again, everything about pitching framing is subtle. You see some of the things in Castillo’s technique that could lead to such poor numbers.

You see a flimsy wrist:

wel2

You see a noisy head and stabby glove:

wel1

You see this:

wel3

It makes sense for a team trying to court a high-profile free agent pitcher to acquire an elite pitch framer, especially when the one they currently have is the opposite of elite. Lester, notably, experienced first-hand what a switch like that feels like this year.

Maybe you don’t believe pitch framing numbers should be weighted as heavily as they are. I’m not even sure that I do. The numbers agree Montero is about a +2 WAR framer. Let’s cut that in half. Add it to his optimistic +3 WAR Steamer projection, and Montero comes out as something like a +3.5 WAR catcher in 2015. The numbers agree Castillo is something like a -15 framer, let’s regress that to -5. Castillo comes out as something like a +1.5 WAR catcher. It isn’t a monumental upgrade, but it’s an upgrade.

It looks even nicer when you consider the platoon splits. Castillo can’t hit right-handed pitching, but he’s run a 134 wRC+ in 206 plate appearances against lefties in his career (granted, .376 BABIP alert). Montero, on the other hand, has struggled mightily against left-handed pitching the last two seasons, but has been at least league-average against righties. Between the two, you’ve a lefty-masher who controls the running game as well as anyone, and you’ve also got an elite pitch-framer who hits righties. That’s an attractive combination not only for the Cubs lineup, but for a free agent pitcher considering coming to the Cubs.

The Cubs are expected to take on the entirety of Montero’s remaining $40 million, three-year deal, but given the forecasts and his framing abilities, that doesn’t seem like a terrible contract. Especially given that the Cubs have money. The payroll was just $93 million last year, but it was as high as $144 million in 2010. They’ve only got about $70 million on the books for 2015, and that number could double. Money is not an issue for the Cubs right now. If the they want to spend, they will.

Then there’s this:

The Cubs are in that exciting, rare window where a multi-year rebuild appears to be complete, and the front office can finally have some fun in the open market. Front offices having fun typically translates to fans having fun, and there’s nothing not to like about what the Cubs are doing right now. They went out and got Joe Maddon to manage their championship-hopeful team. They went out and got Jason Hammel. They went out and got Miguel Montero, and that should help them be able to go out and get a top-tier starting pitcher. And even if/when they get that top-tier starting pitcher, they plan to go out and get more. Montero isn’t the biggest piece of the Cubs puzzle, but he’s a piece. It’s a puzzle the Cubs have been building for nearly five years, and it’s a puzzle that’s nearly complete.



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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.


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Well-Beered Englishman
Guest
1 year 5 months ago

FYI “The Cubs sent xxxxxxxxxx to Arizona for the 31-year-old veteran catcher.”

dirtbag
Guest
dirtbag
1 year 5 months ago

Kevin Towers would have never traded for xxxxxxxxxx. xxxxxxxxxx just isn’t gritty enough.

chuckb
Guest
chuckb
1 year 5 months ago

Maybe, but there’s an upside that’s awfully sexy!

Cerambam
Guest
Cerambam
1 year 5 months ago

I have not seen anywhere that this deal is finalized. I agree that everyone is reporting it, and includes the terms you outlined, but I have certainly not see anyone saying it’s done.

sam
Guest
sam
1 year 5 months ago

I think its misleading to say that Montero underperformed in 2014. His hitting numbers were pretty close to last year in 2013 too.

dtpollitt
Member
Member
dtpollitt
1 year 5 months ago

Great piece. I like the idea of a platoon for the Cubbies.

Balthazar
Guest
1 year 5 months ago

Agreed. Cubs needed a catch-and-throw guy back there, and got one with the bonus of being a good platoon fit for what they have. It was worth taking on the relatively modest money in that they gave away no main talent in doing so. Seriously, if the Cubs sign Lester, they don’t need to to do a thing. They have a whole crew of young talent to whom they need to give playing time and so sort themselves out. A rotate anchor and fixing the backstop put them in a great place.

Sam
Guest
Sam
1 year 5 months ago

Watch the Cubs try to deal for Zobrist now.

Ryan Brock
Member
Member
1 year 5 months ago

What the heck happened in Montero’s second half though? Huge spike in groundballs (leading to the poor BABIP). K-rate also spiked while BB-rate went in the tank. Was he hurt again?

That bar on 31st where they serve your beer in its can
Guest
That bar on 31st where they serve your beer in its can
1 year 5 months ago

I don’t understand why anyone expects current Cub ownership to (ever) prioritize winning over profits, when they’ve cheerfully finished in the basement three years running despite MLB’s 4th-highest revenues, per Bloomberg. You see, a team with uber-elite revenues does not ever have to teardown/rebuild. Not if they’re smart. The Cubs have opted for the EXTREMELY profitable false choice of a teardown/rebuild, and should be excoriated for it rather than praised.

Jedeo Hoyerstein inherited a Cub team *very* much like what John Mozeliak inherited in St. Louis a few years before: a sub-.500 collection of aging talent with a dismal -100 run differential. Mozeliak traded veterans for prospects, veterans for veterans, and prospects for veterans, made a few shrewd free agent acquisitions, and in one year improved the team by 150 runs — and in two they were in the playoffs as division champions. All that while simultaneously building an elite farm system — and without massive Cubbian revenues.

Anyway, re Montero, I’ve rarely seen so much giddiness over such a marginal improvement. And I doubt this is going to seduce Lester or Scherzer, but we’ll see.

arc
Guest
arc
1 year 5 months ago

Clearly an objective perspective you’re speaking from there.

whetstone
Guest
whetstone
1 year 5 months ago

The 2007 Cardinals’ best young players were 27-year-old Albert Pujols, 24-year-old Yadier Molina, and 25-year-old Adam Wainwright.

The 2011 Cubs’ best young players were Geovany Soto (28), Starlin Castro (21), Matt Garza (27) and Jeff Samardzija (26).

I do think the Cubs could have reloaded without being as bad as they’ve been, but having the best player in baseball in his prime, as the Cardinals did, changes the calculus a bit.

That bar on 31st where they serve your beer in its can
Guest
That bar on 31st where they serve your beer in its can
1 year 5 months ago

Thanks for the responses!

1) Of course I’m not objective. Who among us is? But questioning another person’s objectivity doesn’t in and of itself constitute a rebuttal of substance. But I’d be glad to see the error of my logic if you want to point it out.

2) The St. Louis trio of Pujols, Wainwright and Molina provided 13 fWAR in 2007, while the Cub quartet of Castro, Garza, Soto and the Shark logged 11 combined fWAR for Chicago.

That 2 win back-of-the-napkin advantage for the Cardinals is far far more than offset by the Cub advantage of $70M in annual revenues according to Bloomberg. Think of it: if wins were worth $5M apiece in the open market back in 2011, that’s a theoretical 14-win edge if Ricketts/Hoyerstein makes the market value investment in on-field talent.

Instead, for three years Cub ownership hoarded money, prospects, and losses. Sox fan that I am, I nonetheless took little joy in the awfulness of the northsiders — rather, I was and am disgusted by the con job pulled on my Cubfan brethren.

The last three years have been nothing short of a disgrace, and the fully supportive so-called analysts at Fangraphs and elsewhere should be ashamed of themselves for playing along with the mockery. (And a sham. It’s a shamockery.)

Antonio Bananas
Guest
1 year 5 months ago

The Cardinals weren’t as bogged down by as many awful albatross contracts though right? Surely that has to mean something.

That bar on 31st where they serve your beer in its can
Guest
That bar on 31st where they serve your beer in its can
1 year 5 months ago

Senor Bananas: it’s a valid point. The gap between bad-money Cub contracts post-2011 and bad-money Cardinal contracts after 2007 is indeed meaningful — but I’m confident that, no matter we might choose to define “bad-money”, the annual gap between the two organizations wasn’t close to $70M, as they looked toward the future.

No, what the Cubs are doing right now, and the Sox have done over the past few weeks, is exactly what Ricketts & Co. could’ve and should’ve done three years back. Try to win as much as you can, as soon as you can, without *severely* undermining your ability to win 4 or 5 years down the road.

BB
Guest
BB
1 year 5 months ago

Condescending pity from a Sox fan? How kind of you.

My favorite part is when you legitimately compared the trio of Pujols/Wainwright/Molina to Castro/Garza/Soto. That’s pretty much how far you have to cherry pick facts to justify this silly argument you’re making.

skmd
Guest
skmd
1 year 5 months ago

still bitter, Boras?

Dave B.
Guest
Dave B.
1 year 5 months ago

Spoken like a true White Sox fan….can’t even bask in the glow of their own free agent signings.

Ezb230
Guest
Ezb230
1 year 5 months ago

Man, toss in some stuff about the cardinal way and you would have just about everything that makes (some) cards fans unlikable wrapped up in a neat little package. Impressive stuff

Ezb230
Guest
Ezb230
1 year 5 months ago

And now espn has Lester to the cubs. So you’re also wrong. Solid job all around

That bar on 31st where they serve your beer in its can
Guest
That bar on 31st where they serve your beer in its can
1 year 5 months ago

Excellent! Ricketts finally found a crowbar strong enough to pry open his wallet.

One more move and the Cubs can contend for the division. Headley maybe?

ezb24
Guest
ezb24
1 year 5 months ago

This was their stated intention from the beginning. Build up the system and then bring in vets when the kids neared the bigs. Of course it’s easier to give them credit for that now that Lester is aboard. As for a bat, I’d guess no on Headley. They seem sincere about starting Bryant out at third and Valbuena was solid last year. And either Castro or Beaz could move over (assuming Russell is the SS by the break). I’d expect an OF if anything, but not counting on anything huge.

ezb24
Guest
ezb24
1 year 5 months ago

*Baez

BB
Guest
BB
1 year 5 months ago

@ezb24

Don’t bother. This is a common attitude among Cubs fans. They think the plan suddenly changed–and therefore wonder why this wasn’t the plan from the beginning–and not that this was what it would be all along. They can’t grasp how the new CBA made quite turnarounds much harder.

BB
Guest
BB
1 year 5 months ago

“Jedeo Hoyerstein inherited a Cub team *very* much like what John Mozeliak inherited in St. Louis a few years before”

And that’s when I stopped listening to you.

Economics 101
Guest
Economics 101
1 year 5 months ago

Montero & Castillo: Peanut Butter & Jelly, No Pepsi v. Soda.

Butch Crassidy
Member
1 year 5 months ago

I certainly understand why pitch-framing is seen as a vital part to a team’s success. However, on this very site, Montero ranks behind Castillo in every advanced defensive stat. It’s definitely huge when your catcher can “steal” you several strikes a game, but it appears that pitch-framing is all a good number of people need to make Montero the new #1 C.

KDL
Guest
KDL
1 year 5 months ago

Defense is already considered in WAR. Pitch framing gets spoken of separately because it has not yet been incorporated into WAR.

busy scouting t-ball
Guest
busy scouting t-ball
1 year 5 months ago

I think they are going to give castillo more pt than just a platoon. He will probably playing close to 60 games just due to monteros age. They might trade castillo and sign lesters caddy david ross. If you trade castillo you’re probably looking for a centerfielder in return to make alcantara the super utility guy which he would be awesome at.

surfdoc37
Guest
surfdoc37
1 year 5 months ago

After being more or less intentionally terrible and failing to participate mea ingfully in free agency because it was too early in the rebuild, the best way they can find to spend $40 million is on a very marginal upgrade from Castillo to Montero? And another $20 million to Hammel to not be Edwin Jackson ($25 million)? Glad it’s not my money.

swingofthings
Member
swingofthings
1 year 5 months ago

Yeah, because they don’t have a 150MM+ offer extended to Lester or anything. Nor have they said more moves will follow

Also, the upgrade is more than marginal because you will be platooning the two. That gets Castillo’s good performance against lefties and Montero’s against righties, thus meaning the catcher will hit presumably hit well all the time. That’s valuable. And they won’t have to play a backup catcher who is useless offensively ever.

surfdoc37
Guest
surfdoc37
1 year 5 months ago

So a platoon catcher then, and one with a bad back?

For $215 million, Cubs have Lester to front the rotation, Montero to replace Castillo versus RHP, and Hammel to keep Jackson out of games. Roughly same amount of money gets Sandoval plus Robertson plus Liriano plus Nelson Cruz, granting, they might not have wanted to play.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy Lester is aboard, and I’m even kind of happy Montero is. But I hoped they would spend smarter once they opened the purse strings. Their holes in LF and at 3B were significantly deeper than at C, for instance.

Steve
Guest
Steve
1 year 5 months ago

“Their holes in LF and at 3B were significantly deeper than at C, for instance.”

Kris Bryant?

surfdoc37
Guest
surfdoc37
1 year 5 months ago

Good as he his (one hopes) he cannot play both! Valbuena has exceeded my wildest expectations but fits as a fine utility man better than as a starter.

Left out that their projected starter in CF hit .205, and at 2B .169, last season. Coghlan hit .140 two years ago. A lot of outs regardless of what other skills they bring. More holes that might fill internally in a perfect world. But there’s a real chance one or both of Alcantara or Baez busts rather than busts out, and Coghlan is probably not as good as he looked in August.

A Melky Cabrera signing would make a lot of sense.

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