Victor Caratini

Cubs 2020 roster outlook: New MLB rule gives Victor Caratini chance for bigger role

Cubs 2020 roster outlook: New MLB rule gives Victor Caratini chance for bigger role

Each day in March, NBC Sports Chicago is previewing one player from the Cubs’ expected 2020 Opening Day roster. Next up is catcher Victor Caratini.

2019 recap

Caratini hit .266/.348/.447 with 11 homers and a 108 wRC+ in 95 games (59 starts) last season. He emerged as Yu Darvish’s personal catcher and, alongside starter Willson Contreras, made up one of the best 1-2 punches in all of baseball behind the dish.

Caratini filled in admirably for Contreras after he went down with a hamstring strain on Aug. 3. In 24 games (18 starts), the 26-year-old hit .271/.354/.471 with four home runs and an 11.4 percent walk rate.

Oh, and he also made a sweet defensive play last season...during a pitching appearance. 

Expectations for this season’s role

Caratini will again backup Contreras and catch every Darvish start. Otherwise, he’ll mix into the starting lineup every couple of days to keep Contreras’ legs fresh. He’s also Anthony Rizzo’s backup at first base and will see time there, occasionally.

2020 outlook

Something to keep an eye on the next few weeks is the competition for the Cubs’ 26th roster spot. They’re considering catcher Josh Phegley for the role in order to utilize Caratini more on days he doesn’t start.

Last season, Caratini was the Cubs’ most successful pinch-hitter, going 8-for-19 with two homers and seven RBIs. By carrying Phegley, Caratini could pinch-hit at any point in a game without David Ross potentially running out of catchers — should Contreras exit a game for whatever reason.

Caratini could start for other teams but is No. 2 on the Cubs' depth chart behind a back-to-back All-Star starter. The extra roster spot gives him a bigger opportunity to have a daily impact, starter or not. 

The complete roster outlook series:

1. Cubs hoping Kris Bryant stabilizes leadoff spot in 2020
2. Kyle Hendricks is a steady force in the Cubs' rotation
3. Kyle Schwarber is primed for a breakout 2020 season
4. Tyler Chatwood has chance to rewrite the script in 2020
5. David Bote searching for more offensive consistency in 2020
6. One pitch could hold key to Jose Quintana's 2020 success
7. Albert Almora Jr. looking to rebound behind new swing, refreshed mental state
8. Cubs counting on bounce back season from Craig Kimbrel
9. Javier Báez is indispensable, and the best is yet to come
10. New pitch key to Rowan Wick staving off regression

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How Cubs are approaching the new 26-man roster rule

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USA TODAY

How Cubs are approaching the new 26-man roster rule

The designated hitter isn't coming to the National League yet and Major League Baseball is not about to enact an electronic strike zone for the 2020 season.

But there are some smaller changes in place that will have far-reaching implications on the game this upcoming season. 

One such shift is the move from a 25-man roster to a 26-man roster on a daily basis — a decision that will shape how the Cubs and their competition attempt to maximize the players in their organization.

With the addition of an extra roster spot, however, comes the caveat that teams cannot carry more than 13 pitchers. The Cubs have consistently worked with an eight-man bullpen in recent seasons, so there shouldn't be much change there. 

It will mean that the Cubs will have an extra position player on the bench, giving first-year manager David Ross another weapon to deploy late in games. With a 13-man pitching staff in the past, the Cubs have often been forced to roll with a three-man bench (plus the backup catcher), which isn't always conducive to playing the best matchups or covering for an injury to a position player.

The new rule also means the Cubs won't have the luxury of calling up an extra arm on a given day and playing with an even shorter bench during extreme circumstances.

"We actually lose a bit of flexibility because there were times where we'd get really strapped in an extra-inning game or something where for a day, we'd go to a nine-man pen," Theo Epstein said. "We won't be able to do that anymore. So it's really an extra position player, which is nice. 

"It gives us an opportunity for any dynamic pinch-hit options, conceivably a nice pinch-running option, defensive replacements — it makes platooners a little bit more manageable on your roster having that extra position player. We've been giving it some thought."

With that in mind, here's a few options as to how the Cubs can make the most of the new rule:

1. An extra catcher

Another position player spot could mean room for another catcher, at least temporarily. 

In recent seasons, the Cubs have utilized three backstops on their roster for a time, including last season with Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini and Martin Maldonado for a couple weeks. They also did so throughout the 2016 playoff run with Contreras, Ross and Miguel Montero forming a three-headed monster.

Given Contreras' and Caratini's positional versatility, the Cubs had alternatives in the past to rotate through three catchers without sacrificing much on the bench. It also helps that Caratini is a switch-hitter.

But in an ideal world, the Cubs would still have three or four other position players who are not primary catchers. The 26th roster spot would give the Cubs the flexibility to have at least three position players on the bench plus the option of two catchers. That would be perfect if a situation arises where Contreras, Caratini or one of the other backstops is banged up and going to miss a day or two.

2. A speed demon

Terrance Gore would be the ideal 26th man along these lines as a speedster on the basepaths who can help steal you a base in a crucial spot or simply serve as a rangy defensive replacement in the outfield or an upgrade on the basepaths late in games. 

Under Epstein, the Cubs have typically found a guy like that for September when rosters expand. Gore was here in 2018 and — as Cubs fans remember — scored the team's only run of the NL Wild-Card Game when he entered as a pinch-runner for Anthony Rizzo. 

If the Cubs were going into 2020 as surefire World Series contenders and a roster packed with quality options, a guy under this speed category might be the perfect fit for the final spot to help provide a different dynamic. But this roster has question marks all over the place and they have more needs than simply adding speed.

3. A merry-go-round of options

The Cubs — like many MLB teams — have often utilized the eighth bullpen spot as a revolving door of arms on the shuttle from Triple-A to the big leagues. That's an effective strategy while waiting to see if fringe guys can put it all together and take the next step (like Rowan Wick did in 2019). 

It also works to always ensure a fresh arm during long stretches in the schedule or an overworked bullpen. 

That strategy can also be easily applied to this final position player spot. The Cubs don't currently have to commit to only one player to fill the role and, as such, can use it as rotation depending on needs at a given time.

The Cubs added to that group of potential options Monday when they reached a minor-league deal with infielder Carlos Asuaje. They also have veteran utility player Hernan Perez (a December signing) who can fill the same role, in addition to outfielders Noel Cuevas and Ian Miller — another pair of minor-league free agent signings.

This is probably the most likely course of action for the Cubs with regards to the final roster spot — at the moment, at least. As has been well-documented, the Cubs have not yet made any sort of shake-up to their roster with a trade, so they are currently still in limbo with the rest of the roster. It's hard to nail down what they want to do with the 26th man when they're still trying to figure out the best way to piece together the top of the roster.

4. Sorting out the second base position

If the season started tomorrow, the Cubs would have a plethora of options at second base:

Nico Hoerner
David Bote
Ian Happ
Daniel Descalso
Tony Kemp
Robel Garcia
Hernan Perez
Carlos Asuaje

The Cubs might want to give Hoerner more seasoning in the minor leagues (he completely skipped Triple-A) to start the year, but even if they choose to go that route, there are still a lot of other names in the mix. 

"Second base is an area where we definitely are out there looking, but we have a number of good players on our roster who can play second base," Epstein said. "We've said we're not closing any doors on Nico; we're open-minded and will use spring training and put our heads together on what we think is best for him, best for the team. 

"But you could see a combination of players fill that role for us, including the possibility of someone who's not currently on the roster."

Descalso and Kemp are valued in the clubhouse and can also play other positions (though the Cubs essentially only deployed Descalso as a second baseman). It's a bit redundant to have a pair of left-handed-hitting veteran second basemen on the roster — even as insurance for Hoerner — but Descalso is owed $2.5 million with very little trade value and Kemp provides some much-needed contact ability and energy for this team.

Bote can also play elsewhere and figures to be on the roster in some capacity. Happ has mostly been considered an outfielder throughout his Cubs tenure, but he has been vocal about his desire to play second base.

Garcia, Perez and Asuaje could all begin the year in the minor leagues and provide depth at Triple-A, but there is still no easy answer to the second-base question if Hoerner is not on the Opening Day roster (or fallback options behind him on the depth chart). 

The 26th spot could provide an avenue for the Cubs to sort that all out while still ensuring they have enough depth elsewhere on the roster. 

5. Platooning

As Epstein said, the expanded roster could create more platoon advantages all season. That won't be the case for pitching staffs, obviously, but it would allow teams to carry an extra bat who mashes against lefties or something of that ilk. 

The Cubs could've really used that last year, as they struggled throughout the season against southpaws.

6. Maximum fun

Do the Cubs have a Michael Lorenzen waiting to be unearthed? 

The extra roster spot could lead to a bit of fun if the Cubs wanted to search for a potential two-way player. 

I don't quite know how MLB will enforce the 13-pitchers rule — is Lorenzen going to count as a pitcher, or can the Reds put him down as an outfielder who can also pitch? — but the extra roster spot could conceivably emerge as a position to experiment with throughout the season. 

Don't expect that to happen, but it sure would be fun if more MLB teams gave two-way players a chance and a 26th roster spot year-round could help make that a reality. 

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The aftermath of the Anthony Rizzo injury and where Cubs go from here

The aftermath of the Anthony Rizzo injury and where Cubs go from here

One of the most surreal moments of this crazy Cubs season has to be watching Anthony Rizzo scoot away from his locker Monday afternoon, unable to put any weight on his right ankle.

This is the face of the franchise, the guy who spoke to the millions in attendance at the post-World Series rally three falls ago. Rizzo is the heart and soul of this team in so many ways and has really only dealt with minor back injuries throughout his nine-year career.

Now, he's wearing a boot that makes him look more like Robocop and there's no guarantee Cubs fans will see him take the field again in 2019.

But that doesn't mean you should bet against him...

"In my career, I will definitely play another regular season game," Rizzo jokingly responded to a question from a reporter asking if he will suit up again in the final two weeks of this regular season. "My body usually responds well, so certainly not ruling it out. I have every intention of trying to do everything I can with the training staff to get back on the field with the boys.

"I want to play as soon as possible, whether it's now or Game 1 of the World Series."

The results of Monday's MRI absolutely could've been worse, but the lateral sprain to Rizzo's right ankle will keep him in that boot for the next 5-7 days. After that point, he and the Cubs can determine how much movement and stress that joint can take or how much mobility he'll have.

With the Cubs fighting for their playoff lives over these next two weeks and knowing his gutsy nature, don't be shocked if Rizzo forces the issue and tries to make a return of some sort before October, even if it's just in a small pinch-hitting role.

"There's a minimum amount of time when you have to just prioritize healing and let the inflammation die down and let things heal for a little bit," Theo Epstein said. "And then once we get past that period of time, then we can see if there are ways to manage the discomfort and if there are ways through taping to create some stability that gives him at least a chance to consider contributing down the road if things go really well. 

"We're not shutting any doors, but we're realistic that this is a legitimate injury that under ideal circumstances would take some time to heal."

Would Epstein be surprised if Rizzo returned before the end of the regular season?

"I'm just comfortable saying that we're not ruling it out," Epstein said. "Shoot, I was there [in Boston] with Curt Schilling in the doctor's office trying to figure out how to staple his ankle ligament back to the bone so he can go out there and pitch. This is not an analogous situation, but I've learned never to rule anything out. 

"But also injuries like this, you just have to give requisite amount of time to let initial healing take place to even have a better idea of what's possible and what's not possible."

Of course the Cubs are going to miss Rizzo while he's out. But they definitely seem to be in good spirits with the situation, all things considered.

There was Rizzo joking about how he wants to pimp out his scooter with a bicycle bell or maybe some streamers. 

There was Joe Maddon laughing about how he's thankful Rizzo can't move around too much in the dugout during games because of that scooter. The Cubs manager is already worried about finding a buffer once Rizzo is off the scooter and more mobile.

There was Jason Heyward joking about how restless Rizzo will be in the dugout, talking nonstop about "random shit" and how the Cubs players will enjoy ragging on Rizzo to keep things loose during this next week.

"[The scooter] is torture for him," Heyward said. "But at the same time, we kinda love seeing him riding around. He's gonna make a bunch of jokes about it. We're gonna make a bunch of jokes about it and just have fun with it that way. That's all we can do."

Maddon believes Rizzo's injury can be a galvanizing moment for the club, rallying around the injured player much like the Brewers have done since Christian Yelich was ruled out for the season with a broken kneecap.

But the Javy Baez injury and subsequent news of his broken thumb didn't have that same effect on this Cubs team and there have been plenty of "turning points" and "seminal moments" that never materialized over the course of this roller coaster season.

"We don't need any extra rallying points," Heyward said. "We got enough of 'em and we have fun with that. He's gonna add to that. That's what he does when he isn't playing. He brings the rallying points, he brings the fun, he brings that competitiveness and just the randomness as well."

Everybody knows the Cubs can't replace all Rizzo does for the club, from his Gold Glove defense to his steadying presence in the lineup to his two-strike approach to his aggressiveness on bunts and turning double plays. 

Ian Happ took over at first base in Sunday's game when Rizzo left with the injury and Victor Caratini got the start there Monday night. Both guys figure to be in the mix moving forward, with Maddon also mentioning Jonathan Lucroy and Willson Contreras as potential options. 

At the moment, Maddon does not want to move Kris Bryant to play first because he likes what he's seeing from Bryant defensively at third base. Ben Zobrist is also not expected to be a part of the first-base mix.

Caratini will still catch Yu Darvish like usual, which includes Tuesday night's start against the Reds.

As for leadoff (where Rizzo had slotted in the last few games before his injury), Maddon will roll with Zobrist up there as often as he can down the stretch. But the 38-year-old veteran won't be able to play every day and Monday already represented his third straight start.

The Belichickian "next man up" principle applies here and the Cubs know they won't get any sympathy from around the rest of the league even as the injuries pile up.

"Just keep playing," Heyward said. "Keep going. Everybody just do your part. Don't try and do too much. Just be realistic. Play the game, let the game come to you and that's it. Nobody's gonna look back and say, 'Oh, they didn't make it because they didn't have so and so' or 'they made it 'cause they had so and so' or whatever at the end of the day. Especially our group right here. No one's gonna do that. Keep having fun, keep competing."

The Cubs' expectations for how the next two weeks go have not changed one bit, even with their two most important players potentially unable to suit up over these final 13 games. 

"If we play up to our capabilities, we can beat anybody," Epstein said. "It all starts over once you get into the postseason. We're looking forward to doing what we need to do to get in there. 

"We'll see what happens, but we're in a dogfight of a pennant race. One day at a time."

Heyward summed up the team's mindset simply:

"Either we make it where we want to get or we don't."