Chicago Cubs: George Kottaras

Baker wins job; Olt should be next

March, 26, 2014
3/26/14
1:35
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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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.

[+] EnlargeJohn Baker
AP Photo/Morry GashVeteran catcher John Baker will back up Welington Castillo.
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.

Cubs fall, reliever Cabrera rocked

March, 25, 2014
3/25/14
6:43
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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MESA, Ariz. -- The Chicago Cubs fell to the Los Angeles Angels 8-4 in front of another Cactus League record crowd of 15,276.

The Good: Junior Lake hit arguably the longest home run in new Cubs Park as he cleared the grass beyond the left-field fence where fans sit during the game. It was Lake’s fourth home run in his past two games as he’s come alive at the end of spring training. Extra work and fine-tuning have made the difference for Lake, who had struggled much of the spring. Prospect Dan Vogelbach had two hits while starting at first base, and backup catcher George Kottaras doubled off the wall late in the game.

Relievers Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon both threw scoreless innings as Rondon was hitting 99 mph on the in-stadium radar gun.

The Bad: Reliever Alberto Cabrera got rocked in the ninth inning trying to preserve a 4-2 Cubs lead. He gave up a home run, triple, double and single to the first four batters he faced. Cabrera was pitching well this spring to the point of probably making the team, but Tuesday was simply a bad day for the righty, who got only one hitter out before departing. His ERA rose from 1.00 to 5.79. Nothing he gave up was cheap.

What’s Next: The Cubs will make the hour trip to Peoria, Ariz., to take on the San Diego Padres at 9 p.m. CST. Top pitching prospect CJ Edwards will make his Cactus League debut in the game.

Countdown to Camp: Catching

February, 10, 2014
2/10/14
9:27
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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Welington CastilloMike McGinnis/Getty ImagesThe Cubs remain hopeful that Welington Castillo's offense can catch up with his defense.
With Chicago Cubs spring training set to begin Feb. 14 in Mesa, Ariz., we're taking an early look around the diamond.

Major additions since Opening Day 2013: George Kottaras

Subtractions: Dioner Navarro, Steve Clevenger, J.C. Boscan

Holdovers: Welington Castillo

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Does Welington Castillo have the ability to become an All-Star?

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    61%
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    39%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,386)

Analysis: Only one player who saw time at catcher returns for 2014, but that’s the entrenched starter, Castillo. He’s the only one that matters right now as the Cubs try to work him into being their franchise man behind the plate. Castillo made huge strides on defense in 2013 and showed improvement on offense in the second half. For example, after walking sparingly in the first half Castillo’s plate discipline improved considerably after the All-Star break. His on-base percentage went from .324 to .349 at season’s end. One home run in the first half ballooned to seven for the year despite playing on a bum knee which ended his season prematurely.

Best of all, Castillo was a monster behind the plate, ranking at the top of the league in defensive WAR (2.8). His seven throwing errors, however, were too many for a player with a plus arm. Kottaras won’t replace Navarro at the plate but should be better behind it. Catching is the thinnest position in the Cubs system aand they’ve invited three non-roster invitees to camp, including John Baker and Eli Whiteside. Double-A catcher Rafael Lopez could be a help at the major league level if his improvement continues.

Outlook: If Castillo is healthy expect him to play in more than the career high of 113 games he achieved last season. He’s a rock behind the plate and is only getting better defensively. The question is whether he can take his offense to another level. More pop to go along with his rising on-base percentage of the second half last season would be ideal. The Cubs have a good coach for Castillo in Mike Borzello, who was one of the few survivors from the previous coaching staff. He’s key to Castillo’s development.

Kottaras simply hasn’t shown the offense the Cubs could use off the bench, but overall the combination should be better defensively. It’s doubtful the twosome of catchers will rival the job done by Castillo and the departed Navarro last season, but the only thing that really matters for the future of the Cubs is the steps Castillo takes. He should be coming into his own in 2014.

Countdown to Camp: The bench

February, 7, 2014
2/07/14
10:00
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Luis Valbuena Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesLuis Valbuena is the Cubs' lone returning bench player.
With Chicago Cubs spring training set to begin Feb. 14 in Mesa, Ariz., we're taking an early look around the diamond.

Major additions since Opening Day 2013: Donnie Murphy, Ryan Sweeney, Justin Ruggiano, George Kottaras

Subtractions: Dioner Navarro, Cody Ransom, Brent Lillibridge, Alberto Gonzalez, Scott Hairston, Dave Sappelt

Holdovers: Luis Valbuena

SportsNation

Which Cubs bench player will have the best season?

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    19%
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    12%
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    40%
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    28%
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    1%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,774)

Analysis: The problem with the Cubs bench is it’s intertwined with the starters. Murphy saw a lot of action last year in the final two months and could again this season. Same goes for Valbuena. On contending teams these are purely role players. In the outfield the left-handed Sweeney provides some versatility and can hit lefties and he will also get a good amount of starts. Ruggiano could come off the bench when a right-hander is on the mound and will spell Nate Schierholtz against tough lefties if manager Rick Renteria starts Sweeney alongside him.

If Mike Olt or Javier Baez eventually take a starting spot it will strengthen the Cubs bench by leaving the above players for pinch-hitting and spot duty. In all, Valbuena, Murphy and Sweeney were more productive than not in 2013 so the Cubs do have some decent role players. Based on last season, the biggest loss will be Navarro. He had a huge year at the plate and was a good mentor for starting catcher Welington Castillo.

Outlook: Kottaras has big shoes to fill after hitting just .180 in 100 at-bats last season for Kansas City. His career high in home runs is only nine while he’s never hit higher than .252, although he does take his share of walks. It probably won’t be enough to replace Navarro’s production. Expect him to get far less playing time than his predecessor. Besides that drop off, the bench doesn’t look bad for the Cubs, depending on who gets the majority of starts in the outfield and at third base. It’s unclear what new manager Renteria will do in terms of resting Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. Dale Sveum didn’t believe in it until he was forced to as both players slumped in 2013. Will Renteria be more proactive and rest those players before the major slumps occur? Expect Murphy to spell both players at shortstop and first base.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Starlin Castro
BA HR RBI R
.292 14 65 58
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Rizzo 32
RBIA. Rizzo 78
RA. Rizzo 89
OPSA. Rizzo .913
WJ. Arrieta 10
ERAT. Wood 5.03
SOJ. Arrieta 167