One of the most financially powerful teams in baseball was gobsmacked when Christian Vazquez turned down its three-year offer to take an almost identical offer from the Minnesota Twins during their $300 million winter of building out a depleted roster.
“It was pretty close,” said Vazquez, who seemed to prefer the Fort Myers, Florida, spring locale to Arizona.
The Chicago Cubs then pivoted to defensive stalwart Tucker Barnhart on a shorter-term deal and headed to camp — their long-time All-Star catcher Willson Contreras gone to the St. Louis Cardinals as a free agent and their catching plans beyond this year in flux, at least.
But a funny thing happened on the way to catcher purgatory for the Chicago Cubs as they try to thrash their way toward the competitive light after another multiyear tanking rebuild.
A prospect blast from the past is sending a thrill up the spine of the organization with a healthy start this season that included a brief debut and a growing conversation about the team’s catching future.
Which is to say: The answer to the Chicago Cubs’ long-term catching question — and, by extension, a big part how competitive, how quickly, they become — could be all about a guy who started only 14 minor-league games the last three years and who got demoted back to the minors after a week with the Chicago Cubs in May.
Meet Miguel Amaya, who was recalled from Triple-A Iowa on Saturday and might just be the everyday answer behind the plate for team president Jed Hoyer’s Next Great Cubs Team?
“That’d be wonderful,” Hoyer said of an injury-plagued prospect, long considered a top catching prospect in baseball — making multiple preseason top 100 prospect lists in 2018, 2019 and 2020 until injuries wiped out most of three seasons leading into this one.
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“I’m reluctant to overstate it just because he’s gotten hurt a couple times,” Hoyer said. “But a healthy version of him is going to play in the big leagues for a long time.”
How quickly that might happen could be almost as important of a question for the team as whether Amaya has put a succession of serious injuries behind him seven years into a career that began in the Dominican Summer League during Contreras’ celebrated debut season in 2016 for a World Series winner.
Still only 24 after missing most of the last two years of development because of Tommy John surgery and a Lisfranc injury in his foot, Amaya — who didn’t play Triple-A ball until this month — emerged looking healthier and stronger than he had perhaps at anytime in his career.
After a monthlong tear at Double-A, he got called up and drew high praise in his week of big-league work from the field staff, his pitchers and the veteran catchers.
“The few times I’ve watched him catch in the big leagues, he looks like a big-leaguer, he looks like he belongs,” said Barnhart, a two-time Gold Glove winner. “He’s just gotta do it.”
Said rising-star pitcher Justin Steele, who worked briefly with Amaya in the minors, too: “He has the talent to do whatever he wants to in this game.”
That’s the thing. That talent has never been the issue.
But by the time this season began Amaya had become an all-but-forgotten factor — anything but a prospect with organizational expectations, let alone high hopes.
He was a let’s-see-what-happens, let’s-see-if-he-can-stay-healthy-and-contribute-anything proposition.
And then he showed up this year, and showed out.
“That was really impressive,” Hoyer said of the debut and the roster-wide raves Amaya got. “Winning the guys over and having veteran guys commenting on his calmness was really impressive.
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“No doubt it gives us more confidence going forward.”
Amaya has a deferential demeanor in the clubhouse to go with the poise and hint of swagger on the field — which may not be surprising given the travails along the way to earn even a day in the big leagues.
“I’m just enjoying every single second, having fun, having a great time with teammates,” he said after a few days at Wrigley Field. “I’m just living day-by-day right now. My mind’s not in the future. I’m just focusing on myself, doing the little things, still working on my body, on every single part of my body, to stay strong and to stay as healthy as I can be. And be ready for that moment that they need me.”
This was his mindset in relation to the opportunity that might be at his doorstep in the wake of Contreras’ departure and the short-term statuses of the two catchers on the roster.
And that’s the other thing about all the adversity and literally painful experiences he’s already had at 24 in pursuit of his dream.
“Mentally, it made me way better,” he said. “Strong.”
Amaya is an athletic, 6-foot, defensive-minded catcher with a .996 OPS in two minor-league stops (through Friday).
“He’s a guy that’s been a top prospect for a long time,” Hoyer said. “Provided those injuries haven’t sapped his skill, he’s a good offensive catcher with a slow heartbeat at the plate, and he’ll draw walks, and he’s obviously good defensively. … The healthy version of him can play catcher in the big leagues for a long time.”
Amaya won’t talk too big or too long on such things.
But a lot of the homegrown players on the roster, from Steele to Nico Hoerner, were minor-league peers at some point, and it’s no leap for Amaya to envision his place among them, every day behind the plate, the next time the Chicago Cubs win a playoff game.
“Yeah, why not?” he said. “I know all these guys. I know the chemistry we have. I know we’re going to be working every single day, the little things — control what we can control — and just go out there and have fun.
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“Let things happen and trust our strength.”
There might not be another player in the organization equipped to lead an effort like that into the next generation of whatever this latest Chicago Cubs core might achieve.
Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.