Joe Maddon Explains the Backup Catcher Decision
I had one foot out the door yesterday when news broke that Victor Caratini was going to be the Cubs backup catcher in 2018, but that was a delay I was happy to entertain.
For a while now, I had been pushing for Caratini to be on the Opening Day roster, and I finally got what I was asking for. Although, if I’m being perfectly honest, I was thinking the Cubs might include Caratini on the roster in addition to Chris Gimenez, a la 2015 (Wellington Castillo, Miguel Montero David Ross), 2016 (Willson Contreras, Montero, Ross), and 2017 (which featured various combinations of Contreras, Montero, Alex Avila, and Rene Rivera), but that’s not going to be the case.
Gimenez will instead head to Triple-A Iowa, where he’ll wait in the wings as Major League depth until June 1, when he can decide to opt out of his contract with the Cubs – if he’s not on the big league roster yet – and sign elsewhere. Interesting/unexpected decision, right?
Although I had been pushing for Caratini in my writing, I really understood the reasons against it (offered
annoyingly frequently by Brett). For one, both Contreras and Caratini are relatively inexperienced catchers, who didn’t start their careers at the position originally, but are now tasked with leading a big-time rotation for a sure-fire playoff contender and divisional favorite. For another, Gimenez isn’t a bad back-up at all. He was a league average hitter last season (which is very impressive for a backup catcher) with consistently above average defense, a 14.7% walk rate and very usable splits against lefties (108 wRC+). For yet another, Caratini still carries some weight as a prospect, and you don’t want that just sitting at the bench in the big leagues, when he could be playing (and improving/developing) every day at Triple-A.
And, of course, the veteran experience and familiarity with new staff ace Yu Darvish can’t just be thrown out the window (and to that end, I’m glad he’ll probably be with the organization for at least a few more months). Anyway, yeah, it was a bit of a surprising choice … so what does the man who made it think?
Well, on the surface, Maddon doesn’t seem particularly convicted (not that it’s a bad thing, when both options are good options): “‘Gimmy’ is the perfect backup, he’s made for that job,” Maddon said via Cubs.com. “He is the backup quarterback. He knows how to sit there, and he knows how to come and play two games in October or November and get you through that month and then you have a winning record at the end of the season. We felt this was the right thing to do right now. We know if it doesn’t play for Victor early and he doesn’t get enough at-bats, we can flip-flop at some point.”
So, Maddon’s right about the Cubs’ ability to flip back if Caratini isn’t getting enough playing time* or if it’s just not working out, but, again, that’s true only until June 1. Hopefully, the Cubs have it figured out by then, but, obviously, it’s not just a no-brainer.
*(Willson Contreras will get the VAST majority of starts behind the plate this season (in fact, I think he’ll get more than a usual starter, given his apparent stardom and competitive attitude), but that’s sort of the beauty with Caratini. The fact that he’s a switch-hitter on a team with a more than reasonable, emergency-third-catcher in Kyle Schwarber, means pinch-hitting opportunities should be a little easier to find than usual. And the fact that he can spell Anthony Rizzo at first base also adds another playing time dimension to his game, that wouldn’t exist for most backup catchers).
But don’t get me (or Maddon!) wrong, he had more to add in Caratini’s favor beyond that.
Speaking to the Chicago Sun-Times, Maddon said that he/the Cubs know Caratini is ready for the big leagues, so that’s where they want him playing. Maddon understands that the playing time concern is real, but suggests that it might not mean as much as we initially thought: “However, even possibly sitting there going through the prep every day and getting in some action on occasion, maybe pinch hitting once in a while, picking up some later innings,” said Maddon, “is that equally valuable for him to go back to Triple-A where he’s done a really good job in the past and you know he can do that? That was part of the argument.”
There’s definitely diminishing returns for going back to the minors and feasting on pitching, you’ve already proven capable of handling, even in the interest of playing every day. Additionally, learning and working with the big league staff on a day-to-day basis should make Caratini MUCH more able to slide in as a starter should tragedy strike Contreras (KNOCKS ON WOOD). And make no mistake, he would be the guy to start, not Gimenez, even if the roles were reversed right now.
Maddon, of course, said that things can be re-evaluated if the setup is not working in the early going.
So to that end, I think the decision makes a lot of sense. Contreras is expected to play more than your average catcher, so the backup decision isn’t as important as usual. The Cubs have two quality options, both of whom could start the season in the Minors with no issue, so they went with the younger, upside guy, who needs big league experience if he’s going to be called upon to step in as a starter in a pinch.
All things considered, I’m digging the choice. How about you? [Brett: For all the reasons you stated, I’m fine with it, even if it wasn’t what I was expecting. We still might see Gimenez before June 1 in any case.]
You can read more about Caratini, Gimenez, and the decision at Cubs.com and The Chicago Sun Times.