- Jesse Rogers, ESPN Staff Writer
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MESA, Ariz. -- The Chicago Cubs named John Baker as the backup catcher and cleared two players from their 40-man roster by giving catcher George Kottaras his unconditional release and losing Donnie Murphy to the Texas Rangers in a waiver claim.
Kottaras signed a one-year deal with the Cubs over the winter after being acquired in a trade with Kansas City but lost out in the battle to be Welington Castillo's backup as manager Rick Renteria announced Baker, a spring invitee, won the job.
"Baker really worked hard this spring and I kind of think he just earned a spot," Renteria said after the moves.
The loss of Murphy paves the way for prospect Mike Olt to make the team as he's rebounded nicely from vision problems of a season ago while the emergence of infielder/outfielder Emilio Bonifacio made Murphy expendable as well. Olt is batting .270 with five home runs this spring while Bonifacio has been an igniter at the top of the lineup, hitting four triples in Cactus League games.
"We still have that third base spot working itself out," Renteria said. "We're going to continue to play out what we have in camp, hopefully being able to come to a conclusion here in the near future."
Rosters have to be set by Sunday, but Olt looks like a lock. At the very least he can take Murphy's role in a platoon situation at third base with lefty Luis Valbuena. He also played at first base this spring so he might be the backup for Anthony Rizzo considering Murphy was likely the man for that role previously.
The moves also could benefit non-roster outfielder Ryan Kalish. He's rebounded from injuries and also provided a spark with his speed with six stolen bases. With Bonifacio and possibly Kalish on the 25-man roster, the Cubs will be much more athletic than they have been in the recent past.
The moves also save the Cubs money as Wednesday was the last day players could be released without having to pay them their full salary for the season. Baker still needs to be added to the 40-man roster before Opening Day as would Kalish if he makes the team. Another spring invitee, veteran catcher Eli Whiteside will play in Triple-A Iowa.
Baker, 33, is a six-year veteran who played for the San Diego Padres the last two seasons when Renteria was the bench coach. He's a career .258 hitter. Kottaras hit .150 with eight strikeouts in 20 spring at-bats while Baker hit .292. Murphy was a late season call-up last year and hit 10 home runs in the final two months of the season.