MESA, Ariz. – Yadier Molina is the best catcher on the planet. That’s why the Cubs have given Welington Castillo video of Molina to study and absorb.
Castillo is not Molina, and we could have put that in all caps.
Molina has won two World Series rings and five straight Gold Gloves, giving the St. Louis Cardinals a hard edge and an identity as distinct as his tattoos.
But the Cubs are betting that Castillo can become their everyday catcher, a potential foundation piece in Theo Epstein’s rebuilding project. Manager Dale Sveum has talked openly about Castillo having the potential become an All-Star, win Gold Gloves and make a lot of money in this game.
On Thursday, as the Blue and White teams played an intrasquad scrimmage at HoHoKam Stadium, it was hard to think of a holdover player from the Jim Hendry administration who has seen his stock rise faster or higher (outside of maybe Javier Baez).
Castillo made cameo appearances in the big leagues in 2010 and 2011, but that was mostly memorable for his freak broken-bat accident that almost killed Tyler Colvin, and the questions about his ability to call and frame pitches.
Bench coach Jamie Quirk – who primarily played catcher during his 18 seasons in the big leagues – raised eyebrows at Cubs Convention last month when he told all the fans packed into a hotel ballroom that Castillo has Molina-like physical tools.
“Everybody thinks, ‘Well, what about his calling of the game? What about his mental aspect?’” Quirk said. “How else do you work on it? You can’t do homework on it. You can’t practice that. That’s in-game, studying hitters, pitchers. You have to play to get that and that’s the last part of his game that’s coming.
“You have your freaks. You have the Buster Poseys. (But) you look at Yadier, it took (awhile). He got better and better and better. He wasn’t that guy right away.”
If Castillo is going to be The Man, then he’s going to have to be able to stay on the field.
Castillo, who will turn 26 in April, has been too fragile throughout his career, never playing more than 101 games in a season. He spent time on the disabled list last year with an MCL sprain in his right knee. He was shut down in late August 2011 with a right hamstring strain.
So Castillo didn’t go home to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic and instead worked out at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., a facility where future first-round picks prepare for the NFL combine.
Even if Dioner Navarro is a capable veteran backup, Castillo wanted to get stronger and prepare his body for the grind of an entire season.
Castillo also turned down an opportunity to play in the World Baseball Classic, knowing that the Cubs remade their pitching staff with Edwin Jackson, Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva and Kyuji Fujikawa.
“We signed a lot of new guys,” Castillo said. “I just preferred to stay here and work with those guys, try to gain their confidence and know how they pitch, just build that relationship, because I know we’re going to have a good year.”
Castillo, who is now in his ninth season in the organization, speaks very good English, a skill he said he picked up in part by listening to music (and sometimes singing along).
Castillo has asked first-base coach Dave McKay, who spent 16 seasons on Tony La Russa’s staff in St. Louis, about Molina’s work ethic and approach.
“He’s got that perfect attitude,” McKay said of Molina. “He can be a tough kid. He can get (ticked off) real quick. He’s real quiet, but he’ll get in your face in a minute. He knows how to win a pitcher over.”
Last spring, McKay talked to the team about Matt Holliday’s game-changing hard slide that took out Starlin Castro the year before.
That was the perfect moment to sum up the rivalry at that moment, one team on the way to a surprising World Series run, another looking lost. The Cardinals played with an edge, and every game matters when you clinch a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season.
“You see guys run (Molina) over,” McKay said. “Guys would get upset thinking it was a little bit of a cheap shot. He might find something good in what that guy did. He’ll come back: ‘No, that’s a good baseball play.’”
McKay thought back to the time Ted Lilly ran over Molina and knocked the catcher out of the game, a billboard for the 2008 Cubs team that won 97 games.
“I talked to Yadi about it,” McKay recalled. “He goes: ‘No, that’s my fault. That’s not his fault. I wasn’t expecting it. That was all my fault. That was clean. But next time, watch what happens.’”
Castillo isn’t going to turn into A.J. Pierzynski or give the Cubs a total attitude adjustment. But he’s supposed to keep growing into this job.
Castillo hit .265 with five homers, 11 doubles and 22 RBI in 52 games for the Cubs last season. He has a much deeper understanding of the BATS video system they use for advance scouting.
“He knows he can play here now,” Quirk said. “A year ago right now, I don’t know if he knew that. He might have thought that, but he didn’t carry himself like that and he’s at that point. He’s just definitely more confident, more relaxed, not trying to prove everything every time he’s on the field.”
No, Castillo hadn’t heard what Quirk said at Cubs Convention. Castillo’s eyes widened before he broke into a big smile. Same type of tools as Molina?
Well, the front office and coaching staff has shown a lot of faith in Castillo, who now has to prove that he really can be the player they envision (or else).
“I know that they want to win,” Castillo said. “They’re going to do everything to get to the World Series and win (a title). They’re going to bring in the guys that can do that here.”