Virtually with each passing day, a forced marriage at catcher between the Chicago Cubs and P.J. Higgins appears to be shaping up.
The Cubs badly need a reliable backstop after losing Willson Contreras to free agency – and worse to the division rival Cardinals. In recent days, Omar Narvaez, Christian Vazquez, Tyler Heineman, and Mike Zunino have all also signed.
Chicago Cubs have no choice but to give P.J. Higgins a shot
The North Siders’ only current roster options are Yan Gomes and Miguel Amaya, a prospect who has never played above Double A.
Gomes appeared at 69 games at catcher for the Cubs in 2022. But he hasn’t had more than 400 plate appearances since 2018 with Cleveland, which was also the last time he made as many as 100 starts.
Higgins, who the Cubs are rostering as an infield (first base) option, made 34 of his 71 defensive appearances as a catcher. But he batted only .229 with a so-so .693 OPS, and produced negative defensive numbers. Those included throwing out just three of the 19 opponents who tried to steal on him.
Still, the Cubs’ options are few and decreasing. Of the five most highly regarded free agent catchers this winter, only Gary Sanchez has yet to sign.
In some respects, Higgins is also the most intriguing option. A 2015 12th round Cubs pick out of Old Dominion, he kicked around in the system before getting a brief major league taste in 2021. Called up in May of 2022, he did just enough to be intriguing, including hitting six home runs. He also reduced his chase rate – non-strikes he swung at – from 31 to 25 percent.
That’s not great, but compared with some recent Cubs – Javier Baez 50 percent, Contreras 32 percent, Anthony Rizzo 30 percent – it’s borderline selective.
Having given Higgins that much, he’d have plenty of room for improvement if the Cubs are forced to give him the job entering 2023. His 3.1 barrel percentage is negligible, and the result is an 85.6 mph exit velocity that would be decent if the Cubs were playing American Legion ball.
His average 9.0 degree launch angle is next to nothing when measured against what is considered the optimal MLB range of 15 to 20 degrees.
Defensively, Higgins’ pop time in 2021 was rated by Baseball Savant in the 14th percentile, meaning 86 percent of MLB catcher got the ball to second base more quickly. The same source rated his pitch framing as modestly negative – minus two runs on 782 pitches.
Contreras, sometimes viewed as the minimal baseline for pitch framing acceptability – earned a flat neutral 0.0 runs allowed from Baseball Savant last season.
If they decide to make a play for him, Sanchez could be the intriguing option. He produced an exit velocity in the 97th percentile last season, with a barrel rate at the 92nd percentile. Like Contreras, he earned neutral scores or his framing ability.
The downside with Sanchez is that you are buying bad at bats. He had a frustrating 55 percent chase rate and – cause and effect at work – fanned 136 times in 471 plate appearances for the Twins, nearly a 30 percent K rate.
That’s even worse than Higgins’ 25 percent whiff rate of 2022.
Beyond that, what gossip there has been regarding Sanchez’ 2023 destination does not link him to the Cubs. His most likely landing spots – for what this speculation is worth – seem to be either a return to the Twins, a return to the Yankees, or the Cleveland Guardians.
As noted previously, the problem is that the Cubs are rapidly running out of viable options. Aside from Sanchez, the only plausibly available free agent catchers are Jorge Alfaro, Tucker Barnhart and Curt Casali. None are in their 20s, none topped .250 for average or .667 for OPS in 2022, none produced positive defensive metrics in 2022, and none played more than half a season.
Chicago Cubs fans may not like the idea of relying on Gomes and Higgins as a catching tandem. But with Contreras, Zunino, Narvaez, Vazquez, and Luke Maile all now off the market, the team is rapidly running out of viable options.