23 for ’23: What will the Cubs’ new era at catcher look like?
Between position battles, roster additions and new rules, there are plenty of questions surrounding the 2023 Cubs. We attempt to provide answers for 23 of the most intriguing questions heading into the season.
MESA, Ariz. — With Willson Contreras donning Cardinal red (and fueling the fire of the rivalry with made-for-Twitter comments), the Cubs are moving into a new era at catcher.
The team retained veteran Yan Gomes from last season and added 2-time Gold Glove winner Tucker Barnhart on a free agent deal this winter.
While Contreras was one of the best offensive catchers in the game during his tenure in Chicago, the Cubs are now shifting into a time where defense is paramount and working with the pitching staff is the most important aspect of the position.
In an offseason where the Cubs added Gold Glovers all over the field (Dansby Swanson, Cody Bellinger, Eric Hosmer) and are prioritizing run prevention, Gomes and Barnhart check all the boxes as a catching tandem.
“They’ve got hardware — winning-type players,” David Ross said. “You feel comfortable no matter who’s behind the plate that the pitching and defense is gonna be a priority, which it is for us.”
Ross referred to Gomes and Barnhart as “co-starters” and the Cubs can deploy either catcher without missing a beat on defense or calling a game. It helps that Barnhart is a switch-hitter, so he and the right-handed-hitting Gomes could also platoon based on the opposing pitcher.
Immediately after signing with the Cubs, Barnhart won over his new teammates and coaches by getting up to speed quickly with the pitching staff.
“I don’t know anybody that hit the ground running as fast as him that I’ve ever managed,” Ross said. “When he signed with us, he’s watching video of all the pitchers and calling, wanting to be on the pitching group text. He’s all in on that pitching group and it’s a really comforting feeling for me.”
Wade Miley pitched to Barnhart for two seasons in Cincinnati in 2020-21 and when Miley was in Chicago last season, he raved to the Cubs coaches about what his former backstop brought to the table.
Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy is also close to Derek Johnson, who was the Reds pitching coach when Barnhart was in Cincinnati.
“When you have enough people that you trust and that you’ve been around that can speak highly of somebody and all say the same things, then you’re usually gonna be in a decent spot,” Hottovy said.
Barnhart caught Drew Smyly for the first time in game action Tuesday and made an immediate impression.
“Tucker’s great,” Smyly said. “He’s very communicative. He comes up to every pitcher and wants to talk about what you throw, how you want to set guys up. Having him and Yan together is going to be incredible this season.
“They’re both so invested to the defensive side of catching and calling games and getting to know their pitchers. [Barnhart] is so good receiving, too. Once you get with him a couple times, this is just going to be like second nature. He’s reading my mind and vice versa. Him and Yan together is just a great combo.”
When the team was in Chicago during Cubs Convention in January, they held a workout at Cubs director of hitting Justin Stone’s facility in the area. Barnhart and Gomes were both there catching guys and working with the pitching staff — a month before Spring Training began.
With both backstops, Hottovy and the Cubs staff feel like they have coaches on the field working with the pitchers.
“It’s because the way they see the game, the way they view pitching in general — it’s very similar to how Rossy views pitching and how I view pitching and organizationally how we would like to go about doing things,” Hottovy said. “When you have people on the same page, it’s easy.
“And in the end, everybody wants the pitcher to succeed. So when the pitcher knows that and feels that, you’re gonna have more confidence. So when he puts down that pitch in a big moment, you’re gonna trust that it’s the right pitch because he knows you, he’s done his homework, he does all the things that — in that moment — give you the confidence you need to be successful.”
Between Gomes and Barnhart, the pair have combined to catch nearly 14,000 innings and over 1,600 games in the big leagues. They’ve each caught in the high-pressure environment of the postseason and Gomes has appeared in two World Series — in 2016 with Cleveland (against the Cubs) and he won a ring with the 2019 Nationals.
They’ve caught a long list of decorated pitchers like Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Jon Lester, Stephen Strasburg, Luis Castillo and Aroldis Chapman.
That track record will come in handy on a Cubs pitching staff that will likely feature a healthy amount of young, inexperienced arms in 2023.
“They just have so much experience for a long time but catching good pitchers, winning teams, winning environments and they do all the little things that you would want guys to be able to do,” Hottovy said. “The communication, the way they go about their business, the prep they do — even before bullpens. It’s impressive.
“And it’s not a fake thing. They do it because they know it’s gonna help the pitchers be the best version of themselves. As a coach, that is an insane thing to be able to have in your organization with guys that are committed to getting the best out of the pitchers no matter what.”
23 for ’23 series
What will the Cubs’ new era at catcher look like?
What is the Cubs’ plan at third base?
Who steps up in the wake of the Seiya Suzuki injury?
What role will Christopher Morel have on the 2023 Cubs?
Who will win the Cubs’ 5th starter spot?
Where does Nick Madrigal fit on the roster?
Who will close for the Cubs?
What kind of impact will Dansby Swanson have in his first season in Chicago?