Cubs

State of the Cubs: Catchers

State of the Cubs: Catchers

As the Cubs maneuver through a pivotal offseason, we will break down the current state of the team each week by sectioning it off into position groups. Here is the third installment on the catchers.

Very few teams have their catcher position fully locked up long-term. For most MLB squads, it's a year-to-year kind of thing, at least with regards to the backup.

The Cubs have the potential to boast multi-year stability with regards to their backstops, but the question is — do they want to? 

After a disappointing end to the 2018 season, it's a pivotal offseason for many individual Cubs — including Willson Contreras — but also for the team in general. The front office and coaching staff can learn several key lessons from how 2018 played out and one of the top takeaways is the need for reliable catching depth beyond Contreras.

It's possible the Cubs conclude Victor Caratini is that reliable depth, but the more likely option is they will seek an established veteran on the market this winter.

Depth chart

1. Willson Contreras
2. Victor Caratini
3. Kyle Schwarber?

Schwarber isn't actually a catcher anymore — simply a light-hearted look illustrating the Cubs' alarming lack of depth at the most important defensive position. Schwarber did not even put on catcher's gear in 2018 and has caught only 7 innings since his rookie season of 2015.

Contreras entered 2018 with 40/1 odds of winning the National League Most Valuable Player Award. That may seem hard to believe now, after he finished the year with a .249/.339/.390 slash line (.730 OPS), 10 homers, 54 RBI and a 92 OPS+. 

But those odds were representative of Contreras' raw talent and the eye-popping numbers he put up in 2017 — .276/.356/.499 (.855 OPS, 118 OPS+), 21 homers, 74 RBI in only 377 at-bats. It was easier to predict something crazy like an NL MVP than it was to forecast the steep drop-off Contreras had offensively.

Did Contreras just run into a wall physically in 2018? It's entirely possible. He caught more big-league innings than any person on the planet and hit just .202 with a .291 slugging percentage and only 3 homers and 9 doubles from July 6 on. Those numbers were even worse from Aug. 2 on — .169 AVG, .232 SLG, 1 HR, 6 RBI. 

It's more complex than simply a need for rest during the course of the season (other factors include: mechanics, approach, how he was being pitched), but it certainly would help to have a reliable, proven veteran behind Contreras able to spell the young catcher.

Caratini entered 2018 with only 66 career plate appearances and 75.2 innings at catcher under his belt in the majors. He rightfully earned the backup catcher spot out of spring training but wound up having a trying year — .232/.293/.304 slash line (.597 OPS, 58 OPS+) and made only 31 starts at catcher, spending only 24 complete games at backstop. Defensively, he held his own — catching a league-average 28 percent of would-be base-stealers, committing only 1 error and 3 passed balls and improving his receiving skills and rapport with the pitchers to become a trusted option down the stretch.

As the season wore on, Caratini carved out a bigger role for himself — 12 of his 31 starts and 8 of his 24 complete games came in September, which speaks to Contreras' performance, the pitching and coaching staff's budding trust in Caratini (he became Cole Hamels' personal catcher) and the clear need for more rest for Contreras.

The only other catcher on the Cubs' 40-man roster is Taylor Davis, a 29-year-old career minor-leaguer who is better known for his on-camera skills than his on-field skills. That's not to say Davis doesn't have value — he's known as a good teammate and clubhouse guy with a nice rapport with pitchers in the Cubs system and he has solid on-base skills, doesn't strike out much and can play first and third base in addition to catcher.

But Davis has caught a grand total of 6 innings at the big-league level and it's clear the Cubs need more veteran depth in some regard. 

What's next?

Brian McCann already signed with the Braves Monday, but there are some other quality veteran catchers out there on the free agent market who could be a good fit for the Cubs in a backup role. Such names include: Robinson Chirinos, A.J. Ellis, Nick Hundley, Jose Lobaton, Jonathan Lucroy, Martin Maldonado, Rene Rivera and Stephen Vogt.

Some of these guys may wind up signing multi-year deals or be offered larger roles as starters for some teams. But they all come with the skills to be a servicable backup with the potential to hold down the fort if Contreras ever went down to injury.

Vogt is an interesting case as a guy who just turned 34, but did not play in 2018 due to a shoulder injury. He finished 2017 on the Brewers and rehabbed with the team before being outrighted by Milwaukee this offseason. Vogt is a two-time All-Star who posted a .737 OPS and averaged 15 homers and 56 RBI a season from 2015-17 and also hits left-handed, so could spell Contreras against tough right-handers. 

Caratini still has an option remaining so he could be sent down to the minor leagues, but he's already 25 and has proven all he can at Triple-A. He deserves to be on a big-league roster somewhere and that may still be on the Cubs, especially given the fact he makes the league minimum.

While Caratini has solid skills across the board, he's still raw and inexperienced and for a team with championship aspirations, it may be better for the Cubs to find a guy they trust more to handle the pitching staff and spell Contreras. 

If they came to such a conclusion, Caratini could be a solid — if unspectacular — trade piece. Either way, the Cubs will add more veteran depth to the roster on at least a minor-league deal (think: Chris Gimenez, Bobby Wilson types).

The bottom line

Regardless of what the Cubs do at catcher this offseason, the success of the position ultimately comes down to Contreras. 

There's no catcher in the baseball who possesses the same blend of offensive skills, defensive skills (his rocket arm and aggressiveness are serious weapons even if he struggles as pitch-framer), passion/energy and age (he turns 27 in May). 

If he puts it all together, there really is NL MVP potential in there for Contreras, and it would change the entire complexion of the Cubs lineup to get that kind of offensive production out of the catcher's spot.

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Cubs playoff race: Cardinals deliver a devastating gut punch

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AP

Cubs playoff race: Cardinals deliver a devastating gut punch

Each game of the final week-and-a-half of the season holds enormous ramifications for the National League playoff race.

The Cubs missed a golden opportunity to make up more ground in the hunt for October against the Reds, losing both Tuesday and Wednesday night. However, they still woke up Thursday morning in control of their own destiny with seven of their final 10 games coming against the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals.

That still wasn't enough to jumpstart the Cubs, as they lost 5-4 to the Cardinals in 10 innings Thursday evening to fall 4 games back in the NL Central with only nine games remaining.

The Cubs have now lost three straight games at Wrigley Field, where they've typically been lights-out this season. It was only the second time all season they lost three games in a row at home.

Quick thoughts

—That one hurts. Big time.

The Cubs offense couldn't do much against Jack Flaherty all night, but broke through with a wild rally in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game and send it into extra innings. 

The 3-run inning had Wrigley rocking as 39,524 fans were on Cloud 9, thinking they were on the verge of the biggest win of the season.

Then Matt Carpenter happened. 

He drilled the first pitch he saw from Craig Kimbrel into the center field bleachers for a go-ahead homer and an absolutely devastating gut punch to the Cubs.

—It was a story ripped right from Hollywood — Anthony Rizzo returning from a badly sprained right ankle to enter the starting lineup just 20 minutes before first pitch

Rizzo was wearing a huge boot on his right foot and had to use a scooter to get around Wrigley Field the last couple days, yet was out in left field Thursday evening in full uniform, running and jumping around on his ankle.

Oh yeah, and he also homered, tying the game with a blast into the left-field bleachers in his second at-bat.

Somehow, all that wasn't enough to spark his teammates until the ninth inning. Rizzo eventually left the game in the sixth inning after his third at-bat, with Ian Happ taking over at first. It remains to be seen if Rizzo will be able to play at all the rest of this series, but the Cubs lineup certainly needs him.

—This is the first time the Cardinals have won a game at Wrigley Field since Sept. 29 of last season. They were swept in both of their previous trips to "The Friendly Confines" this season.

It's also the worst start Kyle Hendricks has had against the Redbirds in more than two years:

Hendricks entered the game with the best home ERA in baseball and had allowed only 1 run and 19 baserunners in 23 innings against the Cardinals this season, but wound up charged with all 4 run on 8 hits in 5.1 innings.

The Cubs felt really good about their chances to start this series off on the right foot behind their home ace, even with Flaherty going on the other side.

But things don't always play out according to plan, which might as well be the tagline for the 2019 Cubs season.

—Flaherty is a legit stud and going to be a serious problem for the Cubs over the next few seasons.

He's been on a Jake Arrieta circa 2015 run since the All-Star Break, entering play Thursday with a 1.05 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 77.1 second-half innings. He continued that trend by allowing only 3 hits and a run in 8 strong innings, striking out 8 Cubs.

Brewers update

The Brewers beat the Padres 5-1 in Milwaukee, so they leapfrog the Cubs for the second Wild-Card spot. 

They welcome the hapless Pirates into town Friday and get to finish their season playing another pair of teams with losing records (Reds, Rockies) on the road.

Nationals update

Washington did not play Thursday, so the Brewers moved to 1 game behind the Nationals for the top Wild-Card spot. The Cubs are now 2 games behind the Nationals.

One of the saving graces for the Cubs is the fact that they have a tough remaining schedule — five against the Phillies (including a doubleheader next Tuesday) and three against the Indians to end the season.

But the Nats do get to head to Miami this weekend to take on the Marlins, owners of the worst record in the NL.

What's next?

The Cubs and Cardinals have a quick turnaround as they play again Friday afternoon at 1:20. It'll be Alec Mills pitching for the Cubs against St. Louis' Michael Wacha. 

The Cubs still have life left in this season, but they are now out of a playoff spot for the first time in months and need to turn things around in a hurry. They essentially have to win each of the next three games at Wrigley this weekend to even have a shot at chasing down the Cardinals in the division.

Sports Talk Live Podcast: The guys react to the breaking news of Rizzo returning to the lineup

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: The guys react to the breaking news of Rizzo returning to the lineup

David Haugh, Hub Arkush and Phil Rogers join Kap on the panel.

0:00- The guys react to the breaking news of Anthony Rizzo returning to the lineup just four days after his brutal ankle injury. Plus they preview the huge Cubs/Cardinals showdown.

12:30- Mitch Trubisky says his offense believes they can turn things around. Will they?

20:30- NBC Sports Washington's JP Finlay joins Kap to provide a scouting report on the Redskins.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: