Cubs have great expectations for Welington Castillo

Cubs have great expectations for Welington Castillo
February 23, 2014, 6:00 pm
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MESA, Ariz. – Photos of iconic catchers line the walls at the far end of the clubhouse. The images – Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Thurman Munson, Roy Campanella – are taped up next to Welington Castillo’s corner locker.

That collage is a reminder the Cubs believe Castillo can be their foundation piece behind the plate.

“Nowadays, a lot of these young players don’t know the history of the game,” catching coach Mike Borzello said Sunday, stuffing some tobacco in his lower lip. “I just wanted him to see what preceded him in different eras of catchers and learn who they are and pay homage to the guys who did it before you. Understand whose footsteps you’re following.

“It started with (throwing) out something like: ‘Would Yogi Berra have done that?’ And you get: ‘Who?’ It got to this point. So now I throw everybody at him now. Mickey Cochrane’s on the wall.

“Now when I say the name, at least he knows who I’m talking about.”

Someone at Cubs Park also added photos of new catchers George Kottaras and John Baker, putting them alongside Elston Howard, Bill Dickey and Gary Carter. Turn over the sheets of paper and you’ll see the players’ bios and stats.

“It’s just the way that they’ve made themselves better and better,” Castillo said. “That gives you an energy and motivation to be the best player that you can be.”

Two-way catchers are hard to find, and the Cubs believe Castillo has only scratched the surface of his potential. During his first full season in the majors, his 2.8 defensive WAR led all catchers last year. He threw out nearly 25 percent of runners trying to steal.

Castillo hit .274 with 32 RBI in 113 games but gradually began to show more power and patience at the plate. He hit six of his eight homers after the All-Star break, putting up an .863 OPS.

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All that didn’t completely erase the questions about Castillo, who will turn 27 in April. Former Cubs TV analyst Bob Brenly had once raised the issue of Castillo’s ability to frame pitches. Matt Garza made it known he wanted Dioner Navarro to be his personal catcher, and the Cubs did everything possible last summer to showcase their most valuable trade chip.

“It’s not going to happen to me (again),” Castillo said. “I don’t take that (as) shutting me down. I take that to improve and get better and better: ‘What can I do to make (Garza) comfortable with me?’

“With that moment, I did feel bad. But at the same time, that kind of thing motivates me to keep working hard and find the way: ‘What can I do to make him – or whoever it is – feel comfortable with me?’ That stuff happens (so you can) get better and better. That’s the way I look at it.”

Garza got traded to the Texas Rangers and signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers. Navarro cashed in with the Toronto Blue Jays and got a two-year, $8 million contract. It’s Castillo’s time now.

The Cubs have shown Castillo video of Yadier Molina, to see how the best catcher on the planet runs the St. Louis Cardinals. Castillo has made strides in calling a game and handling the pitching staff. Jeff Samardzija has watched Castillo’s evolution from Double-A Tennessee to Triple-A Iowa to Wrigley Field.

“He’s a pretty passive guy,” Samardzija said. “He’s not going to get in your face or anything. I thought we kind of turned that page late last year with him being able to communicate with me – things he didn’t like, things he liked. He’s going to keep growing like that and being a leader. He’s going to be an amazing player in this game for a long time.

“He’s a smart kid. He wants to win. And he’s got a ton of talent.”

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This will be Castillo’s 10th season in the organization, meaning he should have influence in the clubhouse, particularly among the talented Latin players rising in the organization.

Castillo worked out with Starlin Castro last month at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Castillo also reconnected with Alfonso Soriano back home in the Dominican Republic during the offseason. The $136 million man doesn’t have a photo on that wall, but Soriano’s message sticks in the back of Castillo’s head.

“I never think like: ‘Hey, this is it. I’m here,’” Castillo said. “I always think like: ‘Hey, I’m another guy. I have to compete.’ I have that mindset. I need to work hard, like everybody else here. It’s something that I’m never going to forget.”