Throughout American professional sports, the road to a championship runs through your division. The importance of winning your division is, perhaps, even more important in Major League Baseball, where skipping over the one-game playoff is enormously valuable.
To consistently win the division, a team must boast strong players at a number of positions, while occasionally developing a really useful player or two. It also doesn’t hurt to play in a weak division, which brings us to the Cubs and the NL Central, which certainly does not look like a weak division going forward. The Cubs and Brewers are pretty terrible right now, but with the Cubs hopefully improving in the near future and the strength of the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds, it’s going to be a tough road to a pennant for the foreseeable future.
With that in mind, we would like to take a look at how the Cubs stack up against the rest of their division at each position, at both the major and minor league levels. We can confidently say that it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the Cubs, but let’s really probe the depths of the Cubs’ division problem, starting at catcher.
Division Leader – Cardinals (Yadier Molina)
Tommy: As much as we may dislike Neck Tats, he’s clearly the best catcher in the division, and arguably one of the most valuable players in all of baseball. Combining elite receiving and throwing skills with a bat that is only topped by Buster Posey at the position (#RIPJoeMauer), he’s a perennial threat to produce 6+ wins. The Cardinals may not have much depth behind Molina, but that’s nitpicking at the moment.
Kenny: There really is no question on who is the best catcher in the NL central and arguably the best in baseball. Yadier does it all, hits for a good average with some pop and the defense teams dream about. In fact for anyone who watches baseball knows how good Molina so I will save looking deep into the numbers because, well, it really is a no brainer.
Surprisingly Close Second Place – Brewers (Jonathan Lucroy)
Though he failed to live up to his monstrous 2012 triple slash of .320/.368/.513, the 114 OPS+ Lucroy posted in 2013 was well above average for the position. Lucroy’s bat, on the back of a strong contact rate and above average power, has the chance to produce close to Molina going forward. And as much as Cardinals fans will shout you down for suggesting it, Lucroy’s glove may produce on a Molinian level going forward as well. Data shared by Harry Pavlidis rates Lucroy’s pitch framing skill as juuuust a bit worse than Molina on a per-pitch basis. Altogether, Lucroy is a kind of Molina-lite who should be very valuable for years to come.
One of the most underrated players in the league right now Lucroy has really come on the past two years posting 3.6 WAR seasons in both 2012 and ’13 according to FanGraphs. He is just entering his prime years so it will be interesting to see the kind of season Lucroy will have this summer where he will most likely find himself batting behind Aramis and Braun.
Middle of the Pack – Cubs (Welington Castillo)
Count me as a person who doesn’t think Welington’s second half was a total mirage. He’ll certainly see some regression, but a .270 average with 15+ bombs wouldn’t surprise me. His BB% needs to stay as strong as it was, and if he can keep an 8% BB%, 22% K%, and .160+ ISO, he’ll be at least average with the bat. If his defense is as legit as some rated it last season (and it may be, his arm is a true weapon), he’s got a chance to be a 3 win player for quite some time. And he better be, as the Cubs have next to nothing at catcher in their farm system.
I REALLY like Welington Castillo and was going back and forth on if I wanted to put him or Martin in the 3rd spot even though Martin’s WAR was 0.9 better according to FanGraphs. I chose Castillo because of the steps I believe he will take this coming year. He needs to raise his SLG% and BB%, if he can do that along with his rocket arm and blocking ability the Cubs will have their catcher for the long haul.
Fourth – Pirates (Russell Nathan Coltrane Martin)
Martin’s defense is special (he’s the 6th best framing catcher according to the data linked above), but his bat has been trending in the wrong direction for two years in a row, and at 31 his legs won’t be getting any younger. I think he and Castillo are a toss-up in 2014, but long term the Cubs are better positioned at catcher. The Pirates have intriguing catchers in their system, like Reese McGuire, who they drafted in 2013, but they are eons away.
Martin came to the Pirates and immediately had an impact, posting a season WAR of 4.1. When doing a list like this with Molina and Lucroy, Martin gets the short end of the stick but there are some very good catchers in this division. He walks at a good clip but his OBP still is just about average and that is most likely because of his 77% contact rate, which is below average. I am sure the Pirates are happy to have him under contract to work with those young arms they have on the roster and waiting in the minors.
Fifth – Reds (Devin Mesoraco)
Mesoraco, a former highly rated prospect, has struggled to find playing time in Cincinnati so far due to a combination of Ryan Hanigan’s presence and his own meager production (he owns a career .277 wOBA). Consistent plate appearances could help Mesoraco find his groove, but at the moment he’s the clear worst catcher and long-term catching solution within the NL Central.
Meseraco is right now the starter for the Reds, the former 15th overall pick had 350+ ABs for them last year putting up a .238/.287/.362 triple slash. He was the Reds top prospect in 2012 so at the age of 25 he will get a shot to be the opening day starter and take control of the catcher position with the Reds.