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Despite injury to catcher Welington Castillo, Cubs don’t have an empty plate

Updated: June 12, 2014 12:14AM



PITTSBURGH — The Cubs have been concerned enough for long enough about their catching depth that they traded for one catcher, signed two others to minor-league deals over the winter, then took seven of them in the draft last week, including two in their top three picks.

So when young starter Welington Castillo went on the disabled list early last week, it figured to highlight an organizational weakness for an already last-place team.

Except the Cubs actually seem to be playing better. In particular, pitching better.

“There are moments when you have hiccups when there’s a transition because of an injury or what have you,” manager Rick Renteria said. “But fortunately for us, that hasn’t happened. We’ve had a smooth transition.”

It’s barely been a week, but even after a rain-delayed 4-2 loss to the Pirates on Wednesday, veteran backup catchers John Baker and Eli Whiteside — the two minor-league free agents signed over the winter — have coaxed a collective 3.04 ERA out of the guys throwing to them as the Cubs have gone 6-3 against the Mets, Marlins and Pirates.

Baker, who didn’t get his first hit this season until the last week of April, even delivered an RBI single in a two-run second Wednesday.

“Whitey and Baker both are experienced major-league catchers,” Renteria said. “It helps in depth when you have someone like Whitey, who was in the minor leagues for us since the beginning of the season, to be able to come in. You know how he is as a receiver. He’s a former part of a World Series-champion club [with the Giants]. And with the Giants, he’s a gentleman who carried a staff, and he knows how to go out and call a game and receive.”

Neither is going to fill Castillo’s shoes as a hitter, and it’s not like Castillo can’t handle himself behind the plate, too. He blocks and throws especially well and has developed in his work with pitchers.

Just how well Baker and Whiteside can fill in as successfully as they have could get a lengthy test.

Castillo went on the DL with inflammation in a rib cage muscle, a potentially lingering injury with a rehab process the club won’t rush. Renteria said Wednesday that Castillo only has begun to take swings off a tee as he works back to playing shape at the team’s training facility in Mesa, Arizona.

Until then, Baker is expected to keep getting most of the starts in Castillo’s absence.

Even before Castillo’s injury, Baker was the regular catcher for Jason Hammel, who before his rough, five-inning start Wednesday had the staff’s best record and ERA.

After a 1-hour, 38-minute delay before the game, Hammel struggled like he has in few starts this season, giving up at least two hits in each inning and needing 93 pitches to get through the fifth.

He took the second-lowest WHIP in the majors into the start, then walked the first batter he faced, two batters before Andrew McCutchen drove a two-run homer into the left-field seats. It went just off the glove of a leaping Chris Coghlan, who landed in the front row after nearly making the catch.

“The best non-catch effort I’ve ever seen,” Renteria said.

Before Wednesday, the Cubs were 9-9 with Baker starting behind the plate with a 3.07 team ERA (compared to 14-27, 3.94 with Castillo).

The team has won all of Whiteside’s three starts since he was called up from Class AAA Iowa last week, with the staff producing a 2.61 ERA.

“We’ve been very fortunate in that regard,” Renteria said. “It’s obviously kept us moving forward.”

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Twitter: @GDubCub



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