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Catching up with Cubs

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 10:46 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 10:48 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Phil Velasquez)
The Cardinals' Daniel Descalso gets out of the way of a high inside pitch that catcher Welington Castillo can't handle during a game last September in Chicago. Castillo will be the Cubs' starting catcher in 2013.

GLENDALE, Ariz. — One day after Dioner Navarro homered in his first Cactus League at-bat for the Cubs, Welington Castillo smoked his first spring home run Monday against the Dodgers.

"If he asks, I'm going to let him know, 'I hit one longer than yours,' " Castillo said.

Suffice it to say there won't be any crowds on Waveland Avenue this summer waiting for shots to leave the yard off the bats of Cubs catchers. But the organization feels confident the tandem of Castillo and Navarro will provide more offense than last year's season-opening duo of Geovany Soto and Steve Clevenger, while also guiding a veteran pitching staff.

Clevenger is slated for Triple-A Iowa, and Castillo has been handed the starting job after hitting .265 with five home runs and 22 RBIs in 52 games in 2012. He took over for Soto after the veteran was dealt to the Rangers at the trade deadline, and he could be part of the core if he has a solid season.

"It feels good, but I'm not going to take anything for granted," Castillo said. "I'm going to work hard like I'm fighting for a job. I don't like feeling comfortable. That does help, coming to spring training and knowing you've got a job."

Manager Dale Sveum said Castillo will catch regularly, though he still has to prove he can stay healthy and handle a pitching staff on an everyday basis for an entire season.

"That's up to Welly as much as anything," Sveum said. "It's just nice to have a backup catcher [in Navarro] that can switch-hit, that can throw, that can catch and all that stuff. Those are all wait-and-sees. Welly is the everyday catcher, and if everything is going well, he should catch 100 to 110 ballgames."

Castillo said: "In my mind, I'm ready for 150 games. It depends on the manager, and my physical health too. We have a lot of day games. I hope I can stay healthy through the season."

When Soto won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2008, the Cubs thought they had a catcher who would be part of their core for years. But he never stayed consistent offensively and now is relegated to a backup role in Texas behind A.J. Pierzynski.

The lack of catching depth in the organization was exposed last year when the Cubs were forced to call up untested Blake Lalli from Iowa after a spate of injuries. Lalli hit .133 in six games and was sent back down, and the Cubs re-acquired Koyie Hill, who had been playing in Double A. Hill hit .179 in 39 at-bats before being released.

Instead of going with the Castillo-Clevenger tandem again, the Cubs decided signing a veteran backup was better for Castillo's development.

Navarro, 29, is a .245 career hitter who was an American League All-Star with the Rays in 2008. He has thrown out 25.7 percent of attempted base-stealers since 2004, the 11th-best percentage in the majors. A once-promising career has been in steady decline since '09, and he spent most of last year at Triple-A Louisville, the Reds' affiliate.

"It's a little bit different to me, going to another team again," Navarro said. "But it's all the same. It takes a couple days for everyone to get to know the other person, then it becomes a lot easier. It's part of the game, and it has been like that forever. It's one big family."

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