Position switch paying off for Clevenger
Former shortstop competing for backup catcher role
MESA, Ariz. -- There were three days left in instructional league in fall 2006, and Steve McFarland, who was the manager for Class A Boise, approached Steve Clevenger with a proposition.
The Cubs had drafted Clevenger in the seventh round that June as a shortstop. McFarland wanted to know what he thought about switching to catcher.
"I told him, 'Yeah, it'd be something I'd be interested in doing,'" Clevenger said. "He asked if I minded doing it for three days to give it a test run. I said, 'Yeah,' and I went in and got some gear and strapped it on and went right into a game. I had to borrow somebody else's glove -- I think it was Mark Reed's. I caught maybe one game, the last day of 'instructs.'"
There wasn't much time for Clevenger to think about it. Marco Carillo was pitching and Clevenger squatted behind the plate.
"I didn't even warm up or anything," Clevenger said. "I went straight in to catch, no bullpen, nothing."
How did it go?
That was spring 2007, and Clevenger hasn't looked back. Now, he's one of the candidates for the backup job on the Cubs along with Welington Castillo. Clevenger has come a long way.
When McFarland first suggested the switch, Clevenger wasn't too thrilled.
"I still wanted to play infield," Clevenger said. "In the end, it was bound to happen. I knew it was going to happen, I just didn't grasp the concept."
He bought his first catcher's mitt for Spring Training '07.
"I remember my first side [session] was with Justin Berg and it blew my thumb all up," Clevenger said. "I had to go into the trainer's room after the bullpen."
A year ago, Clevenger was in the Cubs' big league spring camp, but knew he'd be headed to the Minor Leagues. He batted .295 for Double-A Tennessee, then .407 (35-for-86) at Triple-A Iowa before getting a callup in September to the Cubs. He notched his first, and so far, only big league hit in the season finale against the Padres, when he delivered a pinch-hit double in the fifth inning.
"You just work as hard as you can throughout your career to finally get a chance and you have to take advantage of the chance," Clevenger said. "Once you get there, you have to keep your job, you have to work hard and keep your job. We all work as hard as we can to get to the big leagues."
Geovany Soto will handle the catching duties for the majority of Cubs games, so Clevenger knows if he does make the Opening Day roster, he'll get limited playing time. That's a backup's job.
"In the backup role, you're going to catch once or twice a week," Clevenger said. "The day you catch, you try to control the staff and manage the game as best you can."
So far, the race is too close to call and may not be decided until the last week of Spring Training.
"[Clevenger] has been impressive behind the plate," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "It's almost amazing he's only been catching a few years. He handles pitchers and receives the ball well. We have some nice assets there at the backup spot."
Sveum is asking pitchers how they feel about Clevenger and Castillo.
"It's going to be interesting," Sveum said. "It's going to be one of those things where you say, 'I don't have an answer, but you're not the guy, unfortunately.' They both have their own assets and they're both really good. A lot of teams would die for that situation. It's a great situation for us to have, but it's going to be tough for one of them to go down."
This spring, Clevenger is making sure he works with all the pitchers so he's prepared whenever he's called upon.
"You want to catch everybody in the clubhouse," he said. "You may not catch them in a game, but you want to get a feel for them."
Clevenger has no regrets about the switch to catcher. It seemed like a faster way to the big leagues.
"In the end, it was a good change for me," he said.
But in the back of his locker is an infielder's glove. He always keeps one handy just in case.
"I love taking grounders out there," he said. "It's a good tool to have in your back pocket. You never know when you're going to get a chance or somebody in the game goes down and they don't have anybody there."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.