Among the moves the Cubs were expected to explore for players not named Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, adding a backup catcher was right there at the top of the list. The combined 2.3 fWAR they got from their backstops ranked ninth in MLB last season, but 2.6 of that came from Willson Contreras. Yes, you read that right. The trio of Victor Caratini (0.0), Taylor Davis (0.0), and Chris Gimenez (-0.3) actually brought the total down.
And that production from Contreras represented a significant drop from 2017 (3.3 fWAR) and was an even bigger departure from early MVP candidate hype. If we got desperate for explanations, we could assign a sliver of blame for what was easily the worst offensive output of his career to philosophical differences with his former hitting coach. Far more responsible, however, was the crushing load of nearly 1,110 innings behind the plate.
Only three other catchers in baseball notched over 1,000 innings last season and none of them were within 40 innings of Contreras. The burden was all too evident as the 26-year-old bonked like an overtaxed marathoner in the second half, falling from a 141 wRC+ in July to 74 in August to 27 in September. Absent a backup Joe Maddon trusted and forced through a meat-grinder schedule down the stretch, Contreras was punched out and hardly able to answer the bell.
With all due apologies for mixing sports metaphors up on you there, the point is that the Cubs really haven’t done anything to address the issue. While Caratini had a brief run of competent replacement performance, he has yet to establish himself at the major league level in a meaningful way. But he has tuned up Triple-A pitching and has nothing to prove at that level, so any further time in the minors might do more harm than good.
The Cubs found that out the hard way when they sent the 25-year-old switch-hitter down in favor Gimenez, which only served to piss Caratini off while netting the Cubs negative WAR in return. And therein lies the quandary, since the only way to get better as a catcher is to catch more and the only way to catch more is to be good enough to merit it.
Please don’t take that as an indictment of Caratini’s potential, it’s not. But I’ve long held that his skillset as an offense-first catcher doesn’t complement Contreras very well and isn’t necessarily suited to a backup role. In order to best realize the potential he’s flashed in the minors, Caratini really needs to get more than one start every five games or so.
Even getting a couple starts each time through the rotation probably isn’t enough, though it’d certainly be a big help to Contreras as the season wears on. With that in mind, it sure seemed as though the Cubs would look to deal the younger backstop as part of a package for pitching or another position of need, even just at the minor league level. Then they could roll with a veteran backup to offset Contreras’s deficiencies and wrangle a pitching staff that might be better served by someone with more experience.
Or at least that was the working theory held by myself and perhaps a couple-three other folks. Thing is, we’re now at the start of spring training and nearly every legit catching option has come off the board. Three were eliminated Monday alone, as Nick Hundley and Stephen Vogt signed minor league deals on either side of the Bay and A.J. Ellis retired to join the Padres’ baseball ops department as a special assistant.
Martin Maldonado is one of the few remaining possibilities, though timing and Cubs’ roster crunch may rule that out. And even when they free up a spot on the 40-man with a procedural move to place Kendall Graveman on the 60-day injury list, recent precedent seems to spell a minor league deal for Maldonado as well. That would give the Cubs a chance to hold something of a competition/showcase during spring training while still adding another player.
By all accounts, though, they’re perfectly content to move forward with Caratini in Chicago and Davis waiting in the wings should an emergency arise. Perhaps the most notable indicator of this was the Cubs featuring Caratini in their Instagram story Monday afternoon. Since, you know, IG is definitely the best place to Sherlock Holmes the crap out of what teams in the Windy City are planning.
Machado posted a chisox item (baby shoes) on his Instagram. But I’m not sure how to interpret this. They are No. 17, which is brother in law Yonder Alonso’s number. Plus, Machado followed YES Network weeks ago, and that appears to have been only for fun. pic.twitter.com/TTC6jOmBY5
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) February 11, 2019