State of the Cubs: Catchers


As the Cubs maneuver through a pivotal offseason, we will break down the current state of the team each week by sectioning it off into position groups. Here is the third installment on the catchers.

Very few teams have their catcher position fully locked up long-term. For most MLB squads, it's a year-to-year kind of thing, at least with regards to the backup.

The Cubs have the potential to boast multi-year stability with regards to their backstops, but the question is — do they want to? 

After a disappointing end to the 2018 season, it's a pivotal offseason for many individual Cubs — including Willson Contreras — but also for the team in general. The front office and coaching staff can learn several key lessons from how 2018 played out and one of the top takeaways is the need for reliable catching depth beyond Contreras.

It's possible the Cubs conclude Victor Caratini is that reliable depth, but the more likely option is they will seek an established veteran on the market this winter.

Depth chart

1. Willson Contreras
2. Victor Caratini
3. Kyle Schwarber?

Schwarber isn't actually a catcher anymore — simply a light-hearted look illustrating the Cubs' alarming lack of depth at the most important defensive position. Schwarber did not even put on catcher's gear in 2018 and has caught only 7 innings since his rookie season of 2015.

Contreras entered 2018 with 40/1 odds of winning the National League Most Valuable Player Award. That may seem hard to believe now, after he finished the year with a .249/.339/.390 slash line (.730 OPS), 10 homers, 54 RBI and a 92 OPS+. 

But those odds were representative of Contreras' raw talent and the eye-popping numbers he put up in 2017 — .276/.356/.499 (.855 OPS, 118 OPS+), 21 homers, 74 RBI in only 377 at-bats. It was easier to predict something crazy like an NL MVP than it was to forecast the steep drop-off Contreras had offensively.

Did Contreras just run into a wall physically in 2018? It's entirely possible. He caught more big-league innings than any person on the planet and hit just .202 with a .291 slugging percentage and only 3 homers and 9 doubles from July 6 on. Those numbers were even worse from Aug. 2 on — .169 AVG, .232 SLG, 1 HR, 6 RBI. 

It's more complex than simply a need for rest during the course of the season (other factors include: mechanics, approach, how he was being pitched), but it certainly would help to have a reliable, proven veteran behind Contreras able to spell the young catcher.

Caratini entered 2018 with only 66 career plate appearances and 75.2 innings at catcher under his belt in the majors. He rightfully earned the backup catcher spot out of spring training but wound up having a trying year — .232/.293/.304 slash line (.597 OPS, 58 OPS+) and made only 31 starts at catcher, spending only 24 complete games at backstop. Defensively, he held his own — catching a league-average 28 percent of would-be base-stealers, committing only 1 error and 3 passed balls and improving his receiving skills and rapport with the pitchers to become a trusted option down the stretch.

As the season wore on, Caratini carved out a bigger role for himself — 12 of his 31 starts and 8 of his 24 complete games came in September, which speaks to Contreras' performance, the pitching and coaching staff's budding trust in Caratini (he became Cole Hamels' personal catcher) and the clear need for more rest for Contreras.

The only other catcher on the Cubs' 40-man roster is Taylor Davis, a 29-year-old career minor-leaguer who is better known for his on-camera skills than his on-field skills. That's not to say Davis doesn't have value — he's known as a good teammate and clubhouse guy with a nice rapport with pitchers in the Cubs system and he has solid on-base skills, doesn't strike out much and can play first and third base in addition to catcher.

But Davis has caught a grand total of 6 innings at the big-league level and it's clear the Cubs need more veteran depth in some regard. 

What's next?

Brian McCann already signed with the Braves Monday, but there are some other quality veteran catchers out there on the free agent market who could be a good fit for the Cubs in a backup role. Such names include: Robinson Chirinos, A.J. Ellis, Nick Hundley, Jose Lobaton, Jonathan Lucroy, Martin Maldonado, Rene Rivera and Stephen Vogt.

Some of these guys may wind up signing multi-year deals or be offered larger roles as starters for some teams. But they all come with the skills to be a servicable backup with the potential to hold down the fort if Contreras ever went down to injury.

Vogt is an interesting case as a guy who just turned 34, but did not play in 2018 due to a shoulder injury. He finished 2017 on the Brewers and rehabbed with the team before being outrighted by Milwaukee this offseason. Vogt is a two-time All-Star who posted a .737 OPS and averaged 15 homers and 56 RBI a season from 2015-17 and also hits left-handed, so could spell Contreras against tough right-handers. 

Caratini still has an option remaining so he could be sent down to the minor leagues, but he's already 25 and has proven all he can at Triple-A. He deserves to be on a big-league roster somewhere and that may still be on the Cubs, especially given the fact he makes the league minimum.

While Caratini has solid skills across the board, he's still raw and inexperienced and for a team with championship aspirations, it may be better for the Cubs to find a guy they trust more to handle the pitching staff and spell Contreras. 

If they came to such a conclusion, Caratini could be a solid — if unspectacular — trade piece. Either way, the Cubs will add more veteran depth to the roster on at least a minor-league deal (think: Chris Gimenez, Bobby Wilson types).

The bottom line

Regardless of what the Cubs do at catcher this offseason, the success of the position ultimately comes down to Contreras. 

There's no catcher in the baseball who possesses the same blend of offensive skills, defensive skills (his rocket arm and aggressiveness are serious weapons even if he struggles as pitch-framer), passion/energy and age (he turns 27 in May). 

If he puts it all together, there really is NL MVP potential in there for Contreras, and it would change the entire complexion of the Cubs lineup to get that kind of offensive production out of the catcher's spot.

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