Is Welington Castillo the Cubs' catcher of the future?
Theo Epstein's front office will always be trying to add pieces to The Core, but Castillo's future has been one of the more complex cases since the president of baseball operations arrived in Chicago in the fall of 2011.
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Castillo turns 27 in April and had been the organization's top catching prospect after signing with the Cubs as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2004. After an up-and-down rookie season in 2012, Castillo took major strides last year, emerging as one of the better defensive catchers in the game.
"Weli had a nice year," catching coach Mike Borzello said. "He's just scratching the surface of what he can be. But he's a guy that when I showed up, he wowed you right away when you saw him as far as his abilities and what he can do, especially defensively."
Castillo finished 2013 with a .746 OPS, 23 doubles and 32 RBI in 113 games, but he got stronger as the season wore on. He hit six of his eight homers after the All-Star break and posted a slash line of .288/.388/.475 (.863 OPS) in the second half.
The late offensive surge helped Castillo net a 4.4 WAR, ranking 21st among all National League players and third among catchers, behind only perennial MVP candidates Yadier Molina and Buster Posey.
Castillo stood out with his work behind the plate by saving 19 defensive runs to lead all big-league catchers.
But there are still questions about Castillo’s ability to call a game and manage pitchers. His education will continue when pitchers and catchers officially report to Mesa, Ariz., on Feb. 13.
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As Borzello said: "Last year was a big step towards learning the position, learning how to handle the pitching staff, how to break down scouting reports, all the retention that goes into that.
"Just building the trust of your pitchers is not an easy thing to do.
"You're dealing with a lot of different personalities. You have to find a way to be able to get the best out of each pitcher. Each one is different and he's learning how to do that. He's getting better with that whole process.
"Until you have that battery working together and trusting each other, it really doesn't work. Last year was a huge beginning to what we're going to see for the next number of years."
This winter the Cubs saved up their money for a run at Masahiro Tanaka and didn’t upgrade with big-name catchers like Brian McCann or Jarrod Saltalamacchia. They added veteran backup George Kottaras and did minor-league deals with Eli Whiteside and John Baker. Ready or not, this should be Castillo’s team.