We recently discussed the desirability of the Cubs bringing in a veteran, back-up catcher to supplement their efforts behind the dish this year. Thankfully, it sounds like that is indeed in the plans.
Each of Bruce Levine and Tony Andracki departed the GM Meetings indicating that the Cubs are on the lookout for a veteran, back-up catcher to add to the mix on the big league roster. Even Theo Epstein confirmed that it was possible: “It’s something we’re considering. I think [Victor] Caratini’s a really talented player and definitely has a role on this team and in this organization, but we’re looking at a little bit of veteran leadership to the group and there’s only a couple places we can do that. So I’d call it a possibility.”
Among the names offered up as possible targets by Levine and Andracki: Wilson Ramos, Kurt Suzuki, Brian McCann, Robinson Chirinos, Jonathan Lucroy, and Rene Rivera.
Ramos figures to get a full-time starting job somewhere, so he’s a bit hard to see as an addition, but the rest make plenty of sense as a second catcher (or even a 1B guy who sees a little more time than a typical back-up, giving more rest for Willson Contreras, who could pick up at bats elsewhere if he is raking). The rub is that you’d really like to see a great pitch-framer to work with Contreras, and all of those guys – with the exception of righty-hitting Rivera – have really fallen way off in pitch-framing in recent years. Of course, if you’re looking at back-up catcher types in free agency, they’re all going to have some warts.
Offensively, Chirinos has been fantastic at the plate for the last four years. But the former Cubs farmhand is now 34, and he’s generally been more of a lefty-masher than a split-neutral type (not a disqualifying thing, mind you, but a consideration with a another righty catcher).
To that end, maybe you’d want to go with lefty-hitting Brian McCann, also 34, who generally hits righties better than lefties? Problem there is that McCann’s offense overall went into the tank last year, and you wonder if he’s just kind of at the end of his rope. Of course, a side bonus with McCann? Maybe he can bring over some of the “knowledge” of how the Astros are getting all of their pitchers to add 2 mph and 500 RPMs to their fastballs 🤔….
Rivera, a former Cub and now 35, can still hit lefties, at least, and rates as the best framer of the group in recent years. Suzuki, also 35, rates poorly as a framer, but certainly found his bat the last two years in Atlanta (127 and 108 wRC+ the last two years) and is a split-neutral guy.
Lucroy, 32, has fallen off the face of the earth at the plate and in framing the last two years, so it’s hard to know what to make of it. It was just a few years ago that, when combining offense, defense, and framing, he was one of the most valuable players in baseball (no exaggeration). Now, I’m not even sure he’s the right fit as a back-up catcher for the Cubs.
Overall, I like this group. I like that there are several potentially good back-up options out there for the Cubs, who could really benefit from having a true, veteran in the mix in 2019. As we wrote previously:
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 ….
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 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.