Catcher Gimenez would be pleased to fill Chicago Cubs' backup role
MESA, Ariz. -- The chemistry between pitcher Yu Darvish and catcher Chris Gimenez looked to be in midseason form Saturday morning.
"Atta boy," Gimenez yelled after several Darvish pitches darted low across the plate during live batting practice.
"Verrrrry good," Gimenez said before going out to give his batterymate a fist bump.
Darvish and Gimenez are back together again, and it may or may not be coincidence. When the Cubs signed Gimenez to a minor-league deal on Jan. 22, many observers put 2 and 2 together and said that Darvish wouldn't be far behind because of the relationship the two enjoyed while with the Texas Rangers. In 2014, Gimenez made 26 starts, 12 when Darvish pitched. Two plus 2 ended up being 4, and for that, Gimenez is only too happy to accept credit even though he said the two signings were independent of one another.
"It really was," he said with a laugh. "We joke about it a lot, but I did make a few phone calls to him to just let him know basically what I thought this organization was all about. I've been with Joe (manager Maddon). I've been with (pitching coach) Jim Hickey and (hitting coach) Chili Davis in the past.
"Obviously I've seen these guys from afar, the type of group they have, how much fun they have, how good they are and how good they can be coming up for the next years. I tried to portray that to him a little bit. Ultimately, he knows it was his own decision. We do get a big kick out of it, that if he signed here for me, he's got other worries to worry about. I'll take it, I guess."
Even though the 35-year-old Gimenez is in camp as a nonroster player, he is a good bet to make the team.
If there's a job that's underrated and sometimes underappreciated in baseball, it's that of the veteran backup catcher -- the guy who sits on the bench for all but a day or two out per week.
But that job is an important one. The veteran backup often mentors the younger, regular catcher and can serve as a personal receiver for a star pitcher. Jon Lester had David Ross catch him in Boston and Chicago. Hall of Famer Greg Maddux often opted for the likes of Eddie Perez or Henry Blanco over the No. 1 guy.
"I think part of their longevity is not only the fact that they're good, but they know how to do that, meaning they know they're not going to play as often," Maddon said. "They know what it takes to stay ready. They know how to support somebody else, supporting that other catcher. But they have this clubhouse personality sometimes that really lends to success."
Gimenez has played in 361 big-league games over nine seasons, putting up a line of .218/.309/.345 with 22 homers. He got into 74 games with the Minnesota Twins last year.
He knows the job of the backup catcher takes a special mentality if one is going to be happy in the role.
"You have to understand how to deal with the grind of not playing every day, how to keep your timing at the plate, how to keep your timing behind the plate, how to stay in the rhythm of the game," he said. "The backup catcher's job, when he's in there, it should be a seamless transition between the starter and the backup."
As far as star pitchers using the backup as a personal catcher, Gimenez says it's rarely the case that the veteran pitcher doesn't "like" the No. 1 catcher.
"I'm sure, honestly, in some cases, that might be the case," he said. "But I think a majority of the time it's more of just the one catcher seems to understand what that pitcher's thinking most of the time. In the past, I've had some guys that I've primarily caught: Cole Hamels, Darvish, last year Bartolo Colon a little bit.
"You seem to be on that same wavelength. You can't really explain it. You just kind of understand what they're thinking at that time. You could have little visual looks, and they know exactly what you're thinking at the same time."
The Cubs are deep in catching. No. 1 guy Willson Contreras is a star in the making. Victor Caratini got into 31 big-league games last year, but they Cubs may want him to play every day at Class AAA Iowa. That could open the door for Gimenez, but he said his mentality is that he has to win a job.
"This is going to be potentially my 10th year in the big leagues," he said. "I've not been fortunate enough to come into a camp with a guaranteed spot, ever. Really, for me, it's kind of business as usual. Sure, it would be great to have that guaranteed deal, but it's kind of what I'm used to.
"I understand what it takes to win a job. I also feel like I understand what they are needing and looking for, and I kind of feel I provide that. Hopefully it ends up being a really good match because I think we both feel like it fits."
So until the end of spring training, Gimenez will continue to use what he feels are his best assets to win that job.
"I know how to run a pitching staff," he said. "I'm really big in the video room. I pick guys apart. That's what I feel my strength is, just understanding hitters and understanding our pitchers first and foremost because you have to be able to know what they can and can't execute, especially on any given day. I feel like I'm also good with the group, with the guys, keeping guys loose."
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