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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Andy Green ‘fired up’ to be with Cubs, help David Ross any way he can

Andy Green ‘fired up’ to be with Cubs, help David Ross any way he can

It’s quite fitting Andy Green’s introduction to Cubs Nation came at the team’s annual fan festival this weekend.

Green, whom the Cubs officially hired as bench coach in December, grew up a Reds fan in his native Lexington, Ky. It wasn’t long before his allegiances changed to one of Cincinnati’s geographic neighbors, however.

“I went to [former Reds ballpark Riverfront Stadium] as a kid at like 5, 6, 7, first time I saw big-league baseball,” Green told NBC Sports Chicago on Saturday. “But my mom took me up to Wrigley at 12 or 13. I was like ‘This is big-league baseball.’

“I switched over allegiances that time as a Cubs fan, watched Ryne Sandberg — Mark Grace was somebody who jumped off the page to me at that point in time. It was late 80s, early 90s.”

After four years managing the Padres, Green’s childhood fandom has come full circle. Now, he’s David Ross’ right-hand man, brought in to use his own experience managing to help the first-year manager adapt to his new position.

When Green took the helm in San Diego in 2016, the Padres were in the thick of a full-scale rebuild. He holds a 274-366 won-loss record, but that isn’t indicative of what he’s bringing to the Cubs dugout.

“Andy so far for me probably [has been] the biggest help for me in directing my thoughts, getting things organized, getting prepared,” Ross said Saturday at a coaching staff panel. “This guy has been through the season, the National League, knows the details of what it takes to lead.

“Obviously, his resume and what he’s done building a young group over in San Diego speaks for itself. Who he is as a person, Andy right off the bat probably [has] been the biggest help for me. Sends me text messages, emails about leading, about coaching. I can’t say enough about this guy, and I’m very blessed to have him next to me in every game. You guys are gonna see a great product, and a lot of my big decisions, I’ll have a great mind next to me helping me make those.”

Green said he’s spent the last few months learning what Ross’ vision is as a manager and how he intends to execute it going forward. Managing games and preparing for them are different beasts, but Green can already see the intangibles that could make Ross successful.

“He’s fun to work with, he’s hungry to win, he can hold people accountable and smile at the same time, which is an unbelievable skillset that I don’t have,” Green said of Ross. “People feel it when I come down on them. They feel love when he comes down on them. He just has that [relatability] that very few people do, and that’s incredibly impressive to me.”

Accountability has been the word of the offseason for the Cubs. After five seasons with Joe Maddon as manager, the club felt it was time for a new voice in the dugout. They hired Ross not only to try and make the team greater than the sum of its parts, but also hold players accountable, putting them in their place and using tough love when needed.

Ross will have a lot on his plate this season, so he'll rely on Green to lead in areas as needed and take a load off his plate.

“For [managers], there’s a large number of tasks that if you have a capable staff, you can just delegate and not even think about,” Green said. “I want to take that kind of stuff off his plate, stuff that doesn’t have to have the manager’s attention, because you can get some decision fatigue, because it’s amazing what comes at you in that seat.

“I know what that feels like, so every now and again, it’s nice to have somebody who doesn’t just have the answer but has the feelings that come with the answer. I’ve enjoyed it, and honestly, it’s a whatever he needs type thing. My vision on him is I’ve watched him do so much prep work this offseason getting ready for game decisions. He’s going to be great. He’s going to be great.”

It also helps that Green has four years of managing under his belt. Ross can learn from his successes in San Diego, but also learn from Green’s failures to ensure he doesn’t make the same mistakes common in new managers.

“It takes a little minute to know where the best answer is on the bench, and he’ll figure that out pretty quickly,” he said of Ross. “Executing the game decisions, you have to find out in time how he processes those things.

“I made a lot of mistakes. He can learn from my mistakes without having to make them himself. If you can share things in humility, a lot of times it keeps somebody else from repeating your mistakes. There’s things I messed up on, things I did well too. Kinda share those visions along the way and make certain the whole way that this is David Ross’ team and he’s leading this team and all I’m here to do is support and help him and help the players perform at their top level.”

Green spent four years with a losing club. He’s joining a Cubs team full of star players — which, as functioning infield coach on a team with Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, excites him. He wants to win now and believes Ross is the man to lead the way.

And, again, the lure of being a Chicago Cub was strong.

“The fan base is one that you’re fired up to go to work for and bring a winner to,” he said. “Whatever part I can play in that, I’m fired up to do it.”

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Willson Contreras, expert at going viral, tells hilarious profanity-laced story from 2019

Willson Contreras, expert at going viral, tells hilarious profanity-laced story from 2019

Willson Contreras and viral moments at Cubs Convention go hand-in-hand.

At the team’s annual fan festival in 2018, Contreras stole the show with a story from the 2017 season. During a mound visit against the Cardinals, the Cubs catcher gave profanity-laced advice to Jon Lester, the Cubs starter who rarely throws pickoffs due to a serious case of the yips.

"I went out there and I said, 'Hey motherf--ker, throw the f--king ball to first,'” Contreras recalled in January 2018.

Contreras stole the show again Saturday, telling a story about a moment against the Cardinals — this time from the 2019 season.

“So last year, we were facing the Cardinals and I started talking to [Marcell] Ozuna,” Contreras said. “He told me ‘Just call a fastball right down the middle.’ [And I said] ‘Yeah okay, I will.’ Then I called the fastball and he took it.

“I told him ‘What the f— are you talking about? Just hit the ball, just hit it.’

“He asked me ‘Just call it again.’ And I did it. He took it. Swing the [bat]. I called a third pitch and it was a strikeout. And then next time it was like just ‘Shut up,” or something."

Warning: graphic language

How Contreras will top this at 2021 Cubs Convention is uncertain, but considering he now has two viral moments on his resume, we can be sure the next one will be just as amazing.

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