A less-discussed offseason conversation for the Chicago Cubs comes behind the plate.
No, I’m not talking about finding the Cubs a new starting catcher because of Willson Contreras’s disappointing season, since I am a firm believer that a rebound will be coming. Instead, I’m wondering if the Cubs need a new arrangement behind Contreras.
Having caught over 1100 innings in 2018, Contreras was the catching-iest catcher in all of baseball by a good 40+ innings. Most of the primary catchers around baseball caught between 900 and 950 innings. It was a LOT of work for Contreras, who perhaps not coincidentally saw his production drop most dramatically in the second half as he lost the ability to make hard contact.
That workload probably needs to be addressed in 2019.
The Cubs rolled the dice on Chris Gimenez being the veteran, once-or-twice-a-week starter to pair with Contreras, but that was a bust from the word go. That led to the Cubs leaning heavily on 24-year-old catcher Victor Caratini as the back-up – not exactly the best role for a still-developing prospect, and not the best support system for a still-young starter in Contreras.
Caratini didn’t overwhelm in his opportunity to be the backup (.232/.293/.304, 65 wRC+), but that’s a pretty tough role for a guy to shine in the big leagues when he is, himself, still working on his game.
Perhaps that experience will help him be in a better position to succeed in 2019, and maybe that means he’ll be able to start more frequently and take the load off of Contreras more often. But the Cubs can’t afford the luxury of counting on hopes and maybes in an area where they were once again among the worst pitch-framing teams in baseball, and where they got hopelessly little offensive production.
It sure seems like an opportunity to bring in a trusted veteran as a back-up. A guy who can take some of the burden off of Contreras and Caratini, allowing the former to get more in-season rest and allowing the latter to continue development. A guy who can help continue tutoring Contreras on the finer points of receiving. The defense is already there for Contreras. He’s fantastic in so many ways. But the pitch-framing – by the data and by the eye test – is just so very bad.
Also, if Contreras’s bat bounces back, as we expect, you could always sneak him an extra start here and there at first base or in a corner outfield spot. Adding a sure-fire veteran back-up catcher has no real impact on your ability to get as much mileage out of Contreras’s bat as is merited.
The free agent market has some interesting back-up options, to the extent they don’t find starting jobs. Martin Maldonado, Rene Rivera, and Jonathan Lucroy are particularly intriguing, given their past success with receiving skills, and ability to hit at a level commensurate with the better back-up catchers.
The Cubs having a four-man bench makes things complicated here, because the Cubs cannot realistically carry three catchers. But, with one option year remaining, the Cubs may have to ask Caratini to suck it up as the third option for another season, and head to AAA Iowa to begin the season. For the right veteran back-up, I think that’s the approach the Cubs are going to have to take.
From there, Caratini perhaps emerges in the second half – or in 2020 – as a more permanent back-up option (even maybe a back-up who starts more regularly than a traditional back-up), and maybe Contreras’s development has continued such that he is, himself, the polished, veteran catcher.
At a minimum, the Cubs will grab a veteran on a minor league deal. The depth is necessary. But I tend to think this is an offseason when the Cubs may need to seek out one of the group in the next tier, and that would require a big league deal.