Yadier Molina effect: Cubs finding their frontline catcher

Yadier Molina effect: Cubs finding their frontline catcher
August 10, 2013, 10:45 pm
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ST. LOUIS – The Cubs told Welington Castillo to watch video of Yadier Molina and study how the best catcher on the planet does his job.

The St. Louis Cardinals are so much different without their MVP candidate, who is on the disabled list with a knee injury. Molina had shown they can keep winning without Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa. From anchoring the lineup to guiding young pitchers to shutting down the running game to setting the clubhouse tone, everything seems to revolve around Molina.    

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Castillo isn’t close to that perennial All-Star level. But at the age of 26, he has established himself as a building block for years to come. He showed it again in Saturday’s 6-5 win over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

Castillo drilled Michael Wacha’s 93 mph fastball 389 feet, over the left-field fence and into the Cubs bullpen for his fourth homer this season. He drew his ninth and 10th walks in his last 14 games. He drove in a run with a sacrifice fly, the kind of situational hitting that has frustrated this team. He was hit by a pitch in the ninth inning, running his on-base percentage to .359.

“He’s proven to everyone that he’s a frontline defensive catcher,” manager Dale Sveum said. “His mechanics allow him to be a good hitter and you’re starting to see that develop. We throw a lot at that kid and he’s come a long way calling games. There ain’t nobody better blocking the ball. We know he can throw.

“There’s no question he’s a frontline catcher.”

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Castillo went into his first Opening Day with questions about how he would handle the information overload, and suspicions he might not be able to stay healthy and on the field for a full season.

Since the All-Star break, Castillo is hitting .340, raising his overall average to .278. The steady rotation working with Castillo has been the only part of the club that general manager Jed Hoyer would call “contender-worthy.”

When Dioner Navarro got run over by Philadelphia Phillies All-Star Chase Utley and sprained his right ankle, it highlighted another weakness in the organization, where the Cubs might be if the Castillo bet hadn’t paid off so far. The Cubs had to scramble and bring up 33-year-old J.C. Boscan from Triple-A Iowa.  

Looking up and down the system, it’s the one position where the Cubs can’t point to an obvious prospect or two yet.

“It’s the most important defensive position on the field,” Hoyer said. “It’s really difficult (to find). And when you get that frontline-type guy, you’re spoiled. (You) got to be creative in how you go about it.”

Navarro – who’s listed at 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds – passed all the agility tests before Saturday’s game and convinced the staff he didn’t need to go on the disabled list.

“I actually felt a little bit faster than before,” Navarro joked.

Navarro credited assistant athletic trainer Ed Halbur for taping his ankles: “Ed is definitely keeping his job.”

And as for what Navarro was thinking when he left Citizens Bank Park after Wednesday night’s collision at home plate: “First of all, I didn’t want to get carted off. I almost punched Ed in the face and told him I want to walk out of the field. But when the play first happened, I definitely thought that I broke my ankle.”

Yes, Navarro is a character, and Sveum views him as “the perfect backup catcher,” someone who can handle a pitching staff, pinch-hit and show some power (nine homers in 156 at-bats).

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Navarro – who’s on a one-year, $1.75 million deal – is open to the idea of returning to the North Side next season and again helping Castillo with the learning curve. Navarro had been an All-Star in 2008, getting in Matt Garza’s face and helping lead the Tampa Bay Rays to the World Series.

“Definitely, I’m really happy here,” Navarro said. “They’re doing all the right moves to turn this organization around. I would love to be part of it. I can speak from experience. I went to Tampa and then we turned the organization around. And I will be more than happy to do it again.”

Behind the plate, the Cubs may have already found a big piece of the puzzle.