An under-the-radar option that may impact the Cubs’ 2021 catching situation
The Cubs currently have one of the best catching situations in baseball — even after the Victor Caratini trade.
Willson Contreras had already established himself as an elite catcher and then went out and made huge strides as a pitch-framer and defender in 2020. Despite the fact that his name has been bandied about in trade rumors all winter, Contreras is still under team control for another two seasons at an affordable price.
The Cubs added veteran depth behind Contreras over the weekend, signing Austin Romine to a one-year deal. Romine, 32, will slot into Caratini’s spot and represents valuable insurance with nine years of MLB experience under his belt.
The future also looks bright as one of the organization’s top prospects is catcher Miguel Amaya, a 21-year-old who was recently ranked No. 89 overall by Baseball Prospectus.
Amaya is still likely a year or so away from making his MLB debut, but he earned some important experience and development time in 2020 despite the canceled minor-league season. He spent the summer at the Cubs’ alternate training site in South Bend and then felt so good about where he was at that he wanted to play Winter Ball in Puerto Rico.
The Cubs expect Amaya to report to Arizona soon in anticipation of the start of spring training and are still determining his exact plan for 2021. A reasonable expectation would be to see Amaya beginning the year in Double-A after topping out at Advanced Class-A in 2019.
While Amaya is not expected to make an impact in Chicago in 2021, there’s also a dark horse candidate to impact the Cubs’ catching situation in 2021 and beyond: P.J. Higgins.
The Cubs signed Taylor Gushue to a minor-league deal late last year and feel good entering the 2021 season with him and Higgins as their Triple-A depth.
Higgins has played all over the infield throughout his minor-league career, though his time has primarily been spent behind the plate. The 27-year-old is not currently on the 40-man roster, but the team believes in his ability to provide depth.
“As the organization looks at his career, we’ve actually really focused on making sure that catcher is his primary position and he gets most of his reps there,” VP of player development Matt Dorey said on the latest Cubs Weekly Podcast.
Higgins spent 2020 at the alternate site, serving as catching depth and also developing alongside Amaya and the team’s other young position players.
The Cubs were pleased with his performance in South Bend and believe he can carry that momentum into this season.
“We saw in South Bend last year, he’s really starting to drive the ball more — especially to the pull side — and getting it in the air,” Dorey said. “He’s always had more of a contact approach and that’s definitely his strength as a hitter — his contact ability and in-zone plate discipline — but he also is strong enough to do some more damage and we saw that manifest in South Bend.
“He’s also so athletic behind the plate — he’s a plus thrower of the baseball and he has one of those abilities to slow the game down that a lot of guys don’t have.”
During spring training in Arizona pre-shutdown, Higgins showed off that power and throwing arm with a couple of highlight-reel plays, including this defensive gem:
P.J. Higgins continues a catcher-driven spring. pic.twitter.com/ChY0fb14T8— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) February 26, 2020
Higgins was the team’s 12th-round draft pick in 2015 out of Old Dominion. He earned a promotion to Triple-A Iowa for the first time in the middle of the 2019 season and finished the year with a flourish, posting an impressive .291/.374/.521 slash line (.895 OPS) with 5 homers and 19 RBI in 36 games.
If the Cubs need another catcher in 2021 beyond their veteran duo, Higgins could step in as the next man up in Chicago.
“I’m really excited about P.J.,” Dorey said. “If he needed to go up and back up in the big leagues, I think he would do a great job and also provide versatility to play some other positions.
“We’ll let it play out over spring training, but our catching depth is in a really good spot right now.”