Catcher has emerged as a position of strength for the Cubs organization as a whole. Kyle Schwarber reached the majors at that position in 2015, and Willson Contreras followed suit in 2016. This past season saw the debuts of Victor Caratini and Taylor Davis, and in 2018 we may well see the emergence of Ian Rice. After that, there are still more catchers in the system (most notably Miguel Amaya, who played for Eugene in 2017).
That is all to say, the Cubs have done well, internally, on the catching side of things.
Looking to 2018 in particular, the Cubs are in a bit of an interesting situation. They need a backup catcher in the majors, but they may be reluctant to use Caratini in that role. They spent prospects twice to bring in backup catchers down the stretch (once in the Alex Avila trade, and once to make room on the 40-man roster for Rene Rivera waiver claim), and even though those two veterans are now free agents, it is likely the Cubs are determined to bring a veteran in to fill that role again in 2018.
Caratini should, I would think anyway, at least compete for the backup catcher job in spring training. The 24-year-old’s bat looks like a good fit for a bench role with the Cubs, and I don’t really think he has anything left to prove at the plate in Iowa. A switch-hitter, Caratini changed his approach a bit in Triple A last season and put together a very good campaign (0.951 OPS). He doesn’t strike out much (14.7% in Iowa, 19.7% in Chicago), walks quite a bit (8.3% and 6.1%), and has started doing a very nice job spreading the ball to all fields. He isn’t a huge power threat off the bench, but overall is a nice hitter who can play at catcher as well as fill in on the infield corners.
In his brief appearances at the big league level this year (66 PAs), Caratini hit .254/.333/.356 with an 81 wRC+, and is considered one of the top few prospects in the system by the services that still consider him for those lists.
If the Cubs are dead set against Caratini serving as the backup in 2018, and we’ve been given no indication they plan on using him in that role, the reason is probably his work behind the plate. I tend to think he’s good enough behind the plate now that getting used to game preparation and working with the pitchers in the majors is more important than catching daily in the minors, but that is not yet the consensus opinion. It is possible Cubs will want to see further improvement in his receiving game and will send him back to Iowa to serve as the primary catcher for the I-Cubs for another season.
Of course, it is also possible that the Cubs are shopping for a backup catcher because they expect to trade Caratini by the end of the winter. He would be a nice secondary piece in a trade, but I think a team would really have to believe in him as a primary catcher to value him significantly, and I would be a little surprised if that were the case. Given that backup catchers aren’t exactly high-priced commodities, I tend to doubt a team that sees him as a good bench piece will value him highly in a trade. But we’ll see.
If the Cubs do go outside the organization for a backup catcher, they may keep Caratini on the 25-man roster anyway. His ability to play on the corners makes that a not-impossible option, and his bat would be a nice asset off the bench.
More likely, I think, the Cubs would set themselves up for a problem in Iowa.
If Caratini heads back to Iowa, it is likely because they want him catching. But coming up from Tennessee is likely to be Ian Rice, and Rice definitely needs to be playing regularly. Rice, a right-handed hitter, is coming off a pretty good Double A season (and very good Arizona Fall League stint), in which he emerged as a very patient (.353 OBP, 15.2% walk rate) slugging (17 HR, .193 ISO) catcher, albeit one with some contact issues (.230 Avg, 22.8% strikeout rate). Rice played 49 games at catcher for the Smokies, and it is fair to say he needs some additional work back there before he’s ready to challenge for a job on a Major League bench.
So if Caratini is catching about half the games in Iowa, and Rice is catching about half the games in Iowa, then what do the Cubs do with Taylor Davis? Davis is exactly the sort of guy you want in Triple A. He’s solid behind the plate, and with the bat in his hands posted an Iowa OPS of .786 on the strength of a good walk rate (9.1%) and an excellent strikeout rate (11.1%). Davis caught 59 games for Iowa a year ago.
The Cubs could run with Caratini and Davis in Iowa, and leave Rice in Tennessee, but that probably doesn’t push Rice’s development at the plate. They could bring Caratini to Chicago, but that presumably means Joe Maddon would be running with three catchers again, and that may not be viable if the Cubs have to trade one of their versatile infield players in a pitching trade. Axing Davis may be an option, but honestly the Cubs would want someone who looks so much like Davis stashed in Iowa as an insurance policy anyway they may as well just keep him.
So how will this play out? Barring a trade to clear the logjam a bit, and assuming the Cubs do go to free agency to find a new backup catcher, we may not know until the final days of Spring Training.