In 2015 the Cubs debuted a rookie catcher named Kyle Schwarber. He went on to become a World Series hero.
In 2016 the Cubs debuted another rookie catcher, Willson Contreras. He posted an fWAR of 2.2 in just 76 games and became a key contributor to a championship team.
In 2017, the Cubs may very well debut a rookie catcher for the third year in a row. Unlike Schwarber and Contreras, though, I’m not sure Victor Caratini is likely to become a regular starter for the Cubs any time soon. He may very well become a staple of the bench instead.
Caratini, 23, was acquired from the Braves in the James Russell/Emilio Bonifacio deadline trade back in 2014.
After working his way up to Double A last season, he was added to the 40-man roster in November, making him the only catcher on the roster besides Contreras and Miguel Montero (and Schwarber, though it’s still up in the air whether he’ll be available to catch). It’s certainly possible he’ll be needed to make a big league appearance as soon as this year.
The biggest question on Caratini is his defense. When he was younger his work behind the plate was generally listed as a positive, but as he moved into Double A, his future as a defensive backstop became more questionable. That said, as a backup catcher, I suspect he would be fine. Base runners will have an easier time stealing off Caratini than they do Contreras, but that’s likely to be true for most catchers. It remains to be seen how adept Caratini will be blocking very hard breaking balls that break a bit too much, but in pretty much every other category he should be good enough, and likely a touch better than average.
The one catching skill that I get asked about the most these days is pitch framing, and the answer is ‘I have no idea’. Caratini often performs the motions we would expect a good framer to perform, and I have yet to see him carry any would-be strikes out of the strike zone with a stabbing catch like Welington Castillo used to, but I am skeptical that we can accurate judge a catcher’s ability to frame without good PitchFX data. If we don’t know, objectively, whether or not the ball was in the strike zone to begin with, we can’t calculate how good a catcher is at turning borderline pitches into strikes.
Reports on Caratini’s framing are somewhat all over the map; until we get PitchFX data I think that is likely to remain the case. He often looks the part, but we’ll need the pitch tracking data to say much more than that.
Offensively, Caratini’s value is readily apparent. In 115 games in Double A, he walked at a 11.3% clip, struck out just 16.7% of the time, and finished with a respectable line of .291/.375/.405. A short stint in the Arizona Fall League (75 plate appearances) resulted in comparable walk and strikeout rate numbers (13.3% and 18.7% respectively), but his ISO plunged to .048. Likely related, his BABIP came in at a career low .286. The result was a more lackluster line of .226/.338/.274.
With Triple A Iowa I think Caratini will post lines closer to his Double A numbers than his AFL ones. Steamer projects his hypothetical 2017 Major League offerings at .241/.308/.346 … and I would disagree with only the OBP. I do think his eye is better than Steamer credits him. Make that .308 a .328 and I’d say things look about right.
The biggest question with Caratini at the plate, and the thing that probably limits him to a backup role despite a high-walk, decent-contact, switch-hitting swing, is his lack of power. I don’t think catcher is quite the power position it used to be, but on a future roster where Schwarber is a constant threat to put balls in orbit and Contreras slugged .488 as a rookie, a light-hitting catcher with a good plate approach may have a harder time finding at bats. Caratini does a nice job spraying the ball to all fields, but he does not produce a lot of extra base hits in the process.
Don’t be surprised if we see the Cubs work with Caratini on trading a little of his contact ability for power when he hits Iowa. That pattern emerged with fellow light hitter John Andreoli last year, and it resulted in Andreoli posting a career high in home runs (as well as a noticeable uptick in strikeouts). If we see Caratini’s K% consistently trend north of 20% in Iowa, I would not be surprised if his ISO finishes closer to .140 than .100 by season’s end.
Long term, though, it may not matter. Even a modest increase in ISO and SLG probably won’t be enough to allow Caratini to challenge Contreras for the primary catcher job for the Cubs. And his patient, switch-hitting approach makes him just about perfect as a backup catcher who can bat eighth and draw some pitch hitting duty in late game situations for a flexible Joe-Maddon-managed roster. Further, Caratini is a converted corner infielder, who played 30 games at first base just last year, so there is some positional versatility there. If Caratini remains with the Cubs, I think he could have a very long and productive future as a key member of Maddon’s bench.
Equally possible, I think, is that Caratini is traded. If Schwarber is able to catch periodically, and thus two young catchers already on the big league roster, the Cubs may prefer to bring in another veteran if/when Montero leaves after 2017. Since the only other position Caratini can play regularly is probably first base (not an option in Chicago for the next 5 to 10 years), that could make him a fairly valuable trade chip. Some rankings already have Caratini as a Top 100 prospect, and I think he would appear in the top half dozen or so on any list of the most attractive minor league catchers at the trade deadline given his high offensive floor and the fact he has already had success in Double A. He would not be the guy in a major trade, but he could be a key guy in a mid-level one.
Either way, I think we will know the Cubs’ long-term intentions by this time next year. If Caratini is still on the roster when the 2017 season ends, that will be a decent indicator the Cubs are at least considering him as the backup backstop in 2018. Whether with the Cubs or someone else, look for Caratini to see Major League action in September at the latest. If injuries open the need for another catcher in Chicago before then, he could be the first one to get the call.