Cubs considering adding veteran backup catcher; here are some potential fits

Cubs considering adding veteran backup catcher; here are some potential fits

CARLSBAD, Calif. — The Cubs have plenty of items on their offseason wish list — from adding more offense to bullpen help to finalizing the coaching staff.

Add veteran backup catcher and clubhouse leadership to that group, too. 

David Ross isn't coming out of retirement, but the Cubs could kill two birds with one stone — so to speak — by adding a veteran catcher as Willson Contreras' backup who also can provide another respected voice inside the clubhouse. 

Contreras caught 43.1 more innings than any other backstop in baseball in 2018 as he had only rookie Victor Caratini and light-hitting veteran Chris Gimenez as backup behind him.

It's impossible to say how much of an impact all that catching had on Contreras' offense or overall game as he slumped in the second half of the season, but it's entirely possible it played a significant role in the downturn in production.

The Cubs like Caratini as a ballplayer and he started to develop a nice rapport with the pitching staff down the stretch, but he's still an inexperienced player (only 266 career plate appearances) and likely has plenty of growing pains ahead of him as both a hitter and game manager.

So as the Cubs consider making some real change to the lineup and to a clubhouse that lacked an edge and sense of urgency in 2018, adding a veteran backup catcher could be a small move that may pay serious dividends in 2019.

"It's something we're considering," Theo Epstein said Wednesday at MLB's GM Meetings in Southern California. "I think 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."

Obviously that's not exactly a ringing endorsement, but there's also no benefit for Epstein to show his hand at the moment. 

It's clear the Cubs need to do something to augment their catching depth as Taylor Davis is the only guy in the system with MLB experience beyond Contreras and Caratini.

The Seattle Mariners just traded away their catcher this week, but at 27 years old, Mike Zunino doesn't exactly profile as a backup catcher since he's still a guy capable of drawing the lion's share of playing time behind the dish.

So who could the Cubs target this winter?

It'd be hard to see the Cubs out-bidding any teams for the top two catchers on the market — 30-year-old Yasmani Grandal and 31-year-old Wilson Ramos, who are both guys deserving of full-time roles. 

But there are plenty of veterans out there in free agency in sort of the "Grandpa Rossy" mold Cubs fans love so much — guys like A.J. Ellis, former Cub Rene Rivera, Nick Hundley and possibly Jonathan Lucroy (who caught the second-most innings in 2018 behind Contreras and is now 32 with a precipitous dip in offensive production the last two seasons). 

Brian McCann is an interesting name as a respected leader who will turn 35 in February, a left-handed hitter (who could spell Contreras against tough right-handed pitchers) and a proven winner between his time with the Braves, Yankees and the last two years with the Astros.

34-year-old veteran Stephen Vogt missed all of 2017 with an injury, but is a two-time All-Star who hits left-handed and can play a number of other positions including first base and the outfield. The Cubs could take a flier on the former Brewer assuming the medicals check out.

Another intriguing option on the open market is former Cubs farmhand Robinson Chirinos. He spent the first 10 years of his professional career in the Cubs minor-league system before being shipped to Joe Maddon's Rays in the Chris Archer/Matt Garza deal. 

Chirinos, 34, has turned himself into a valuable catcher over the last few seasons with the Texas Rangers, emerging as a legitimate power threat under hitting coach Anthony Iapoce, who moved from the Rangers to the Cubs this offseason. Chirinos has hit 35 homers with 103 RBI and a .347 on-base percentage in 735 plate appearances over the last two seasons.

Yu Darvish makes history, but Cubs lose crucial game

Yu Darvish makes history, but Cubs lose crucial game

Things didn't get off to a great start for Yu Darvish Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but he managed to right the ship quickly.

After allowing three of the first four batters of the game to score, Darvish struck out 10 of the next 12 Reds that strolled to the plate.

That included a stretch of eight Reds in a row, which set a new Cubs franchise record:

Darvish and Kyle Schwarber (3 hits, 2 RBI) were the only bright spots on the night for the Cubs as they dropped a crucial game 4-2.

The Cardinals also lost, so the Cubs didn't lose any ground in the division, but they did fall to 1.5 games behind the Nationals in the Wild-Card race. Milwaukee won, meaning the Brewers are now tied with the Cubs for the final playoff spot in the National League.

Darvish finished with 13 strikeouts in 7 innings Tuesday night, but gave up all 4 Reds runs.

It makes back-to-back incredible performances from the veteran in the whiff department, as he has 27 strikeouts over his last two starts — second-best in Cubs history:

"I'm in a pretty good place [right now], but still, we lost," he said. "We need wins at this point, so I'm still frustrated."

As the Cubs make their push toward October, Darvish has been right up there with Kyle Hendricks as the most reliable members of the rotation. 

Given the way last year went and his slow start to 2019, the Cubs could not have asked for more from Darvish in the second half of the season while also pitching through some forearm tightness. Since the All-Star Break, the 33-year-old right-hander has a 2.70 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 106 strikeouts against only 7 walks in 73.1 innings.

His performance has been especially huge since veterans Cole Hamels and Jon Lester have struggled to find consistency over the last couple months.

"We're seeing the real version of [Darvish] as a person, not just as a baseball player," Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said before Tuesday's game. "I think the comfortability level of him with everybody — the media, the coaching staff, the city, every aspect of it has played into it. 

"When he's in a good place and he's mentally feeling good and physically feeling good and he's comfortable, the sky's the limit with him and what he can do. He's got the freedom here to be more of himself in that we don't put a lot of restrictions on him and what he wants to do. As long as we kinda have the same focus and same goals, we're all on the same team. 

"I feel like he's getting to the point now where he's himself. You see that every time out. He's an ultra competitor; he's an uber planner. His routines are outstanding. He's just ready to go out there and dominate every time he gets the ball."

Cubs hoping reinforcements coming soon in Craig Kimbrel, Brandon Kintzler

Cubs hoping reinforcements coming soon in Craig Kimbrel, Brandon Kintzler

With the biggest series of the season looming later this week, the Cubs still don't know if they'll have two of their top relievers available out of the bullpen.

The position player group is already without its two most important players (Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez) and the pitching staff has also taken a hit recently with Craig Kimbrel (right elbow) and Brandon Kintzler (left oblique) unavailable. 

Kimbrel hasn't pitched since serving up a 3-run homer to Christian Yelich on Sept. 1. He later went on the injured list with right elbow inflammation, but initially hoped to be back after the minimum 10-day stay. The best case scenario now would be Kimbrel returning a week beyond his original target date.

He threw a 16-pitch simulated game/live bullpen Tuesday afternoon at Wrigley Field and the Cubs will see how he feels Wednesday before determining the next step. He could either throw another live bullpen session or, if he feels good, return to the active roster and be available for Thursday's series opener with the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals.

"He looked really good, actually," Joe Maddon said. "Delivery was good. There was no hesitation with his arm. He wasn't guarding whatsoever. I thought the fastball was alive. Maybe the command of the curveball was off a bit, but the break was there. It was very encouraging."

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy also liked what he saw from Kimbrel, and felt the Cubs closer wasn't trying to overcompensate with his lower half and messing up his mechanics. 

As Hottovy stressed, the key will be in Wednesday's evaluation, when Kimbrel is able to come out to the field and play catch and see how his elbow recovers after the live action. 

This is already the second injury for Kimbrel, who didn't make his season debut until June 27 and then missed a couple weeks in early August with a knee issue. 

When he's been able to pitch, Kimbrel has 13 saves in 15 chances to go along with a 5.68 ERA and 1.53 WHIP. This is a guy who has never posted a season ERA over 3.40 or WHIP over 1.21 in his nine-year career.

The swing-and-miss stuff has been there (26 strikeouts in 19 innings), but he's also given up 6 homers so far. Between the free agent process that delayed his start to the season and the pair of injuries, Kimbrel really hasn't been able to settle into a groove in his first season with the Cubs.

"I think the best version of him is still in there," Hottovy said. "I think he'd be the first one to agree with that. But again, an 85-90 percent version of him is as good as anybody. [The key is] getting him to where he feels good, is comfortable and we're able to continue to work on things with him.

"This little stretch here gave us some time to clean up some mechanical things we wanted to do that you may not be able to do midseason when he's throwing three of four days or things like that. We were able to do a lot over this time and hopefully be back into it."

As for Kintzler, he hasn't pitched since last Tuesday in San Diego while dealing with his minor side injury. 

He played catch Tuesday and the Cubs are aiming to get him off the mound in a bullpen Wednesday. Once the symptoms subside and he feels like he can get back into his proper mechanics without pain, he'll be ready to return and he's currently holding out hope he'd be ready for Friday's game against St. Louis.

Kintzler thinks he initially hurt his oblique when he fell on the mound throwing a pitch a few weeks ago.

"It just never felt the same after that," he said. "It was day-to-day. Some days were good, some were bad. Some days I was available, some days I wasn't. So it got to the point where I couldn't do that to the team anymore, so we had to shut it down and try to get it right."

The rest of the bullpen has been coming up huge for the Cubs — they have an NL-best 2.32 ERA in September — even without two of the top arms. That's thanks to the emergence of Rowan Wick, Brad Wieck and Kyle Ryan, plus veterans David Phelps, Tyler Chatwood and Steve Cishek.

"Just gotta stay patient," Kintzler said. "San Diego was probably the worst pain I was in. So that wasn't good for anybody. I think the other guys can get the job done if I can't. I just gotta stay patient knowing that if it doesn't feel right, I don't have to rush because the guys are doing a great job. That's helped out a lot mentally for me."

But like Hottovy said, if getting Kimbrel or Kintzler back at only 85 percent would still help the team and with an expanded roster, the Cubs can get away with giving either veteran extra time off after outings.

With the Cubs squaring off against the Cardinals in seven of the final 10 games beginning Thursday, they would certainly like to have Kimbrel and Kintzler available for as many of those contests as they can.

"A lot of it is the communication with how are they feeling? If you rush them back and they pitch one game and then they're down for four days, is that better than them taking two or three extra days at the front end and then being able to regularly pitch like they normally could?" Hottovy said. "That's what we're trying to balance. 

"Right now, we have a little bit more flexibility. If we didn't want Kimbrel to throw another live BP, we can ease him into it because we have the Wi(e)cks, we have Phelps and Chatwood and those guys. We have more numbers down there. So you can pitch him one day and know he's gonna have a few days off potentially to have some coverage.

"We balance all that out and the biggest thing is getting the guys comfortable where they know if they go out on the mound, they can execute. That's the No. 1 thing. Once they can do that and they feel strong and they're recovering well, then I think we'll be ready to roll them out."