Will Victor Caratini Be Able to Earn More Playing Time in 2019?

Heading into the season, amateur and professional prognosticators alike assumed the Cubs would acquire a veteran catcher to back up Willson Contreras. However, free agency came and went with no such move by Theo Epstein and company. Thus Victor Caratini will remain the primary backup this season.

Despite the overtaxed starter’s slipping numbers down the stretch, Caratini’s playing time was very limited. He started 31 games, catching a total of 290.2 innings, leaving Contreras laboring for 1109.2 innings behind the dish. There is a strong case to be made that this workload led to Contreras’s offensive slump. Some would even argue his last place finish in pitch framing metrics was tied to the fatigue caused by said overuse.

Ideally, a backup catcher would log 400-500 innings, but it appeared from the outside that Joe Maddon lacked confidence in his young catcher last season. So the big question is this: Has Caratini done enough this spring to earn his skipper’s trust?

After raking in the minors, the switch-hitter has displayed almost no power at the major league level. His slugging percentage was an anemic .304 last season, with just eight extra base hits in 181 at-bats. His .313 average and .889 OPS this spring (35 plate appearances) are more than passable, and his three extra base hits give him a .500 slugging percentage.

But as much of a benefit it is to have a catcher who can handle the stick, the most important thing for Caratini to improve on at this point is his defense. That is by far the most sought-after aspect of a backup catcher’s game and it’s not something Caratini is known for. That improvement will probably have to come in framing and calling a game, rather than the more overtly athletic aspects of the game.

Caratini is much quieter behind the plate than the twitchy Contreras, who often looks like he is on his third espresso of the day. The numbers back it up, as Caratini posted -2 defensive runs saved via framing compared to -16 for for Contreras.

New Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy spoke about this advantage after Caratini caught Jon Lester‘s minor league game recently.

“All of our guys like throwing to Vic, so it was good to get Lester an opportunity not just to get three innings with him but get six innings in an extended period of time,” Hottovy said.

Lester, who is famously very picky about catchers and has been a victim of poor framing since David Ross retired, offered a subdued appraisal of his infrequent battery-mate.

“Everyone has their own way they go about game calling, catching and setting up,” Lester said. “That was cool to work with him.”

That may sound almost indifferent by most standards, but it was downright effusive coming from the stoic southpaw. If nothing else, it is a sign that the veteran pitching staff is not uncomfortable working with Caratini.

It seems inevitable that Caratini will get more starts in 2019, even if it’s only to save one of the Cubs’ best players from overuse. He’s working to cultivate the trust of his manager and the staff right now and can do even more early in the season. If he doesn’t, the Cubs really have to look at adding a catcher who can. Because having a repeat of 2018 behind the plate is not acceptable.

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