While Joe Mauer and Brian McCann rate as the best-known offensive catchers in baseball, Geovany Soto was the best hitter in the league at that position in 2010.
Though he got only 387 plate appearances due to a mixture of injuries and managerial stupidity, Soto logged a career-best .890 OPS and socked 17 home runs.
He did all that despite batting mostly seventh and eighth for the Cubs. National League hitters performed nine percent worse than their overall numbers when batting in those slots in 2010, so if Soto had been batting fourth (where he belonged in a beleaguered Cubs lineup, and where batters were 17 percent better than their baseline in 2010), he might well have hit 22 homers and finished with an OPS north of .920.
For perspective, the last Cubs catcher with numbers in that strata was Gabby Hartnett, when he won the MVP in 1935.
Yet the Cubs elected to tender a contract to Koyie Hill this winter (for reasons surpassing any understanding) and then claimed catcher Max Ramirez off waivers from the Red Sox this week. Those two, along with prospect Welington Castillo, will ostensibly compete to become Soto's backup in 2011.
But what if the Cubs have other ideas? Jim Hendry has never shown a special affinity for Soto, and the 2008 NL Rookie of the Year reached arbitration for the first time this season and got a $3 million, one-year deal. The Cubs could have offered a multi-year extension, but they chose to go year-to-year with their star catcher.
Would Chicago be willing to trade Soto and give the nod to either Ramirez or Castillo as the starting catcher? Almost certainly, given their budget constraints, the answer is yes. Soto should fetch a good price on the market too, with a number of potential contenders in need of a catcher.
Read on for five possible destinations for Soto.
The Red Sox allowed Victor Martinez to walk as a free agent, lost the bidding war for Russell Martin and, six days after claiming him, lost Ramirez to the Cubs via waivers.
They do still have Jason Varitek and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, both of whom are switch hitters they intend to keep. Saltalamacchia projects as the Opening Day starter, and the Red Sox (who long coveted him and still believe he will someday realize his plate potential) seem content with that.
If Theo Epstein had a gun to his head, though, he would be forced to admit that catcher still looks like a weak spot for the 2011 Red Sox, perhaps the only one. The Yankees have Martin, as well as Francisco Cervelli and Jorge Posada (who will primarily DH) and the best catching prospect in baseball in Jesus Montero (even if Montero is not much of a catcher defensively).
In a division where one weakness is one weakness too many, the Sox may be a highly motivated buyer for a slugging backstop like Soto.
The Cubs could take aim at one of the Sox's young outfielders, but Ryan Kalish is surely untouchable, and Josh Reddick is relatively unappealing.
Marco Scutaro, though, could be a fit on both sides: Boston does not need Scutaro if it believes Jed Lowrie finally has it figured out, and Scutaro would be an instant upgrade for the Cubs at second base. His contract also expires after the season, a key consideration since the Cubs figure to be among the biggest spenders on any elite free agents in the winter of 2011-2012.
With Russell Martin out of the picture, the Dodgers' projected Opening Day catcher is probably Rod Barajas, he of the .284 career on-base percentage.
Barajas offers power but little else behind the plate, and Los Angeles (a team clearly intent upon dethroning the Giants in 2011) would surely like to have the luxury of bringing him off the bench less often.
Soto is to the Cubs as Matt Kemp is to the Dodgers, but GM Ned Colletti probably would not pull the trigger on a swap of those two due to Kemp's much higher ceiling. More realistically, the Cubs might take interest in a package of younger player from Los Angeles.
John Ely, a soft-tossing right-handed starter whose change-up baffled big-league hitters for a stretch last season, could be a solid addition to an increasingly deep pitching staff for Chicago, although Ely alone would not be fair market value for Soto.
Catcher is a source of perpetual frustration for the Brewers, who are missing only a piece or two from a serious contender in 2011. They already have added Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum this winter, and though their defense figures to be atrocious, every other facet of the team now looks solid.
Soto would fill one of only three real areas of need for Milwaukee and instantly would make the Brewers lineup the most formidable in the National League. Unfortunately, the Brewers have already mortgaged the great majority of their farm system, so the two teams are perhaps ill-matched for a trade.
Soto would need to be packaged with Andrew Cashner to start serious negotiations about second baseman Rickie Weeks, while first baseman Prince Fielder would command another elite prospect on top of that.
If the Cubs end up acquiring Fielder, it will be only because Fielder waited out the Brewers and became a free agent after 2011. Weeks, though, is a more feasible acquisition. He would fill the Cubs' most glaring offensive need by leading off effectively, and he plays second base, where the Cubs badly need help.
If Chicago were willing to part with Jeff Baker in addition to Soto and Cashner, the Brewers would have to pull the trigger: Weeks also can become a free agent after 2011 and could make upward of $5 million in arbitration for 2011 in the meantime. Deals like these are tough to pull off within the division, but this one could make both teams better.
Nick Hundley had a good offensive year in 2010—for a Padre, anyway. His final line (.249/.308/.418 with eight homers in 85 games) was a halting step forward, but the Padres surely hoped for more out of him.
Now 27, Hundley is running out of time to prove himself a big-league regular, and San Diego lost its safety net when Yorvit Torrealba departed as a free agent.
The Cubs could include Soto as part of a strong package in the hope of acquiring closer Heath Bell from San Diego, but a lesser reliever like Mike Adams may be more accessible.
The Padres also have some superfluous athletes in the outfield, including Chris Denorfia and Kyle Blanks, in whom Hendry could take interest.
If Colorado's faculties are not entirely exhausted by the moves that have secured the long-term services of Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Jorge De La Rosa this winter, the team will notice that they now have a glaring hole at catcher: Miguel Olivo is gone, and in his stead stands Chris Iannetta.
Iannetta would love to be left alone with the starting gig for the first time in his career, but the Rockies cannot feel confident doing so given his .701 OPS in just 61 games with the big-league club in 2010.
The team invested in Iannetta with a three-year contract prior to 2010, but the numbers are not prohibitive, and the Cubs could surely convince Dan O'Dowd to accept Soto's extra $3 million in exchange for a pair of prospects or one of Colorado's three top-tier relief pitchers, Huston Street, Matt Lindstrom and Rafael Betancourt.