Willson Contreras

How Cubs plan to maneuver catching situation moving forward

How Cubs plan to maneuver catching situation moving forward

Willson Contreras was just put on the 10-day injured list Monday night, but by Tuesday afternoon, he was already pain-free in his right foot.

The Cubs All-Star catcher is dealing with a strain/bruise in the arch of his right foot, but he saw a specialist Tuesday and plans on taking a couple days off before resuming baseball activities Friday.

The Cubs back-dated the IL stint a couple of days, so Contreras would be eligible to return in the middle of next week if all goes according to plan. 

"If it was me, I'd be playing today or every single day," Contreras said. "But gotta be smart. It's still July and I know the team needs me. I'll be cheering for them right now, but I hope it's less than 10 days."

Contreras said he is getting some orthotic inserts to put into his shoes after initially experiencing the issue while wearing a brand new pair of cleats that hadn't yet been properly broken in. He also said the hard ground played a contributing factor and had a similar injury back in 2015 when he used a new pair of cleats for the Double-A All-Star Game.

When Contreras does return, the Cubs will have an interesting problem to maneuver with their catching situation now that they traded for veteran Martin Maldonado and they still have young backstop Victor Caratini enjoying a breakout campaign.

It's a problem they hope to have.

"It would present differently [having three catchers]," Joe Maddon admitted. "We'd have to parcel out the work in a manner that satisfies all of them, which would not be easy. But it also opens up pinch-hitting opportunities for guys in a good matchup situation, also. We haven't decided exactly [how it's going to work]. 

"But it's hard to not acquire Martin Maldonado if he's available. It's really difficult to walk away from that. So this is one of those things that could be a classic win-win-win, according to Michael Scott. I really believe this will be a great opportunity for Mikey Montgomery in Kansas City and it's a great opportunity for us and Martin here.

"So let's just play it out. I don't want anything negative to happen. I want us to have to figure this out."

Maddon inserted Maldonado into the starting lineup in his first day in Chicago Tuesday and already said Caratini will catch the day game Wednesday with Yu Darvish throwing.

Beyond that, the Cubs don't have a set plan in place for how this is all going to work — in the short-term or when Contreras comes back.

With the Cubs coming off the All-Star Break and getting regular off-days coming up over the next couple of weeks, Maddon doesn't anticipate needing to give first baseman Anthony Rizzo much time off. So, he admitted there's not much of an opportunity for Caratini to play there.

And with Kris Bryant and David Bote already seeing regular time at third base plus the possibility of Robel Garcia and Daniel Descalso able to play the hot corner, Maddon doesn't see much time for Caratini there, either. 

Contreras is coming off a foot injury, so occasionally moving him to the outfield upon his return doesn't necessarily make the most sense at the moment, but maybe that would be an option moving forward. 

Or maybe the Cubs include Caratini in a deal before the trade deadline, though he is a really nice long-term option for the club, especially as a switch-hitter. 

However the Cubs figure it out, the move for Maldonado makes a ton of sense in the big picture view of this 2019 season

Major League Baseball does not have an August waiver trade deadline anymore, so all moves would have to be done before July 31. The Cubs wanted to shore up their overall catching depth and saw an opportunity with Maldonado — a guy they've liked for some time — and jumped at the chance. 

"I've already gotten four texts from people I really respect about [Maldonado] and how much they love him and beyond that, the kind of influence he has in the clubhouse and with his peers," Maddon said. "Conversationally, that came through. I walked into the video room and he's in there talking to [Cubs strategy coach Mike Borzello] and Tommy [Hottovy] and it's like, 'whoa.'

"Handles himself extremely well — looks you right in the eyeballs and he's very confident. So as a catcher, kind of an interesting skillset he's got."

The curious ripple effects of the Cubs' trade for Martin Maldonado

The curious ripple effects of the Cubs' trade for Martin Maldonado

While the Cubs put the finishing touches on a lackluster loss to the Reds Monday night at Wrigley Field, the game quickly took a backseat as reports of a trade filtered through Baseball Twitter.

In came a veteran catcher — Martin Maldonado — from the Kansas City Royals in exchange for Mike Montgomery, who will live on in Cubs history books forever as the guy who threw the curveball that notched the final out in the 2016 World Series to break a 108-year championship drought.

There are many layers to this move, including the corresponding aspect of Cubs All-Star catcher Willson Contreras hitting the 10-day injured list with a strain in the arch of his right foot. Contreras had an MRI Monday afternoon/evening, which revealed the issue. 

Contreras felt like he could play through it and passionately pleaded his case, but the Cubs want to exercise an abundance of caution with one of their most important players.

"Our medical staff feels like if he were to try to play on it, that he'd be risking exacerbating the injury and turning it into something long-term," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "So we have to get ahead of it, take it out of Willy's hands and take him off his feet. 

"We don't expect it to be longer than 10 days — that's what we hope for, anyways."

But even before the severity of Contreras' injury was known, Epstein said the team was already in talks with the Royals front office.

"We've been having discussions with Kansas City and they had an opening in their rotation after trading [Homer] Bailey and they'd been talking to a couple teams about Maldonado and we knew that," Epstein said. "We'd actually been working on a version of the deal beforehand and it was something we wanted to quickly finalize once it became clear that Willson was gonna miss some time."

That's interesting.

So the Cubs' interest in Maldonado is not solely based on Contreras' injury, which means they value the veteran catcher as more than just a short-term, couple-week insurance policy to pair with Victor Caratini. 

On the one hand, that leaves the Cubs free to trade Caratini over the next couple weeks if a deal developed.

But the move for Maldonado also shores up a major area of depth for the Cubs, which is exactly what Epstein talked about before Monday's game, referencing the change in MLB rules that eliminated the August waiver wire deadline. Now, every team has to make their moves ahead of the July 31 deadline and that's it.

"Teams need to keep depth in mind a little bit more, that you have to anticipate where you might be vulnerable to an injury and try to build that depth up in advance — preemptively, really — knowing that there's no escape valve in August," Epstein said. "So you gotta really do all your work this month as much as possible and really take a hard look at your organizational depth."

Well, despite fantastic seasons from Contreras and Caratini, the Cubs actually have very little in the way of catching depth beyond those two. Taylor Davis is the only other backstop on the 40-man roster and he has almost no big-league experience. When Caratini was on the IL earlier this year with a hand injury, Davis rarely played in the month-plus he was on the roster.

Even if Contreras' injury is as minor as it appears, it underscores the point that the Cubs' depth is very fragile at the most physically demanding position on the field. What would the team do if Contreras or Caratini suffered an injury in August or September?

Now, they can add Maldonado into the mix — a veteran catcher who draves rave remarks for his defense and game-calling. 

The right-handed-hitting catcher is due to turn 33 next month and is in his ninth big-league season. He hasn't done much with the bat in his career (.289 on-base percentage, .351 slugging) and that hasn't changed this year (.647 OPS), but his work behind the plate was enticing to the Cubs and their veteran-laden pitching staff.

"He's an established catcher in the league who does a lot of great things behind the plate," Epstein said. "He can really receive, he can really throw. He's caught playoff games. He's handled some of the best pitchers in the game; he's a favorite for pitchers to throw to.

"He's very calm back there, very prepared, calls a great game, really soft hands, lot of experience, lot of savvy and someone who we think can step in and share the job with Vic and get up to speed really quickly in what we hope is a brief absence from Willson."

The Cubs haven't yet shared a plan for how they plan to manage the roster crunch for all three catchers when Contreras returns from injury in a week or two, but that might be because they don't yet have a plan. That's more of a "cross that bridge when it comes" type of situation.

When everybody is healthy — if everybody is ever healthy all at the same time — the Cubs could carry three catchers and utilize Contreras' ability to play the outfield and Caratini's first/third base versatility. They could also option Caratini to the minors for a couple weeks and bring him back up when rosters expand in September or if another injury strikes.

Either way, the Cubs front office, coaching staff and pitching staff can rest easier knowing they have another experienced backstop on the roster. 

The other aspect to all this, obviously, is in the Cubs bullpen and starting depth. Montgomery is out, which means there is an easy open spot on the roster for Alec Mills, who is making a spot start Tuesday while Cole Hamels continues to rehab his oblique injury.

In the longer term, this could be a good thing for the Cubs bullpen, as Montgomery was miscast and rarely used as a short-inning reliever. The 30-year-old southpaw last threw on July 2 and has only made five appearances in the last month. 

Montgomery was slowed by injury in spring training and then again in the first couple weeks of the season, but he had been building up his workload of late - throwing at least 2.1 innings in each of his last three outings. Still, the Cubs opted to go with Mills Tuesday against the Reds instead of Montgomery and they also had Tyler Chatwood and Adbert Alzolay in the rotation at various points earlier this season.

Montgomery hasn't started once in 2019, but he made 28 starts in a Cubs uniform, including 19 last year while filling in for the injured Yu Darvish.

The Cubs clearly feel good enough with their rotation depth as is (Mills, Chatwood, Alzolay) and Hamels' return looks to be right around the corner, so the writing was on the wall that Montgomery wouldn't get many chances to start in the short or long term in Chicago.

It's also good for Montgomery, a guy who got the last out in the World Series and did everything asked of him in his three-plus years in Chicago, bouncing between the rotation and bullpen. 

Now he gets an opportunity to start, which he's been vocal about wanting to do, and he'll be thrown right into the fire — the Royals have him penciled in to start Friday...in Cleveland.

How's that for full circle?

Cubs not yet considering ways to get Victor Caratini and Willson Contreras in lineup together

Cubs not yet considering ways to get Victor Caratini and Willson Contreras in lineup together

Offensive production is very much judged in a "what have you done for me lately" manner.

And by that measure, the Cubs offense is just fine and there's no need to tinker.

However, overall, this lineup has weaknesses, including second base (Cubs rank 21st in MLB with .675 OPS from their second basemen) and center field (19th in MLB with .698 OPS). Before the trade deadline hits, it seems apparent Theo Epstein's front office will add another hitter of some sort to augment this offense. 

But what if the Cubs had an in-house solution?

Victor Caratini had another big game Sunday — going 2-for-3 with a sacrifice fly RBI and his only out was a 109.1 mph liner to left field — and is now hitting .301 on the season with a .383 on-base percentage and .505 slugging percentage.

Caratini wasn't initially scheduled to be in the Cubs lineup Sunday, but with Willson Contreras nursing a sore foot, he got the call and continued to do what he's done all year — play very solid defense behind the plate with quality production at the dish. 

Between Caratini's emergence this season and Contreras' huge bounceback year, Cubs catchers are pacing baseball in OPS, average, OBP, SLG, runs and RBI and rank second in homers and hits.

So with Contreras' ability to play the outfield, will the Cubs try to find ways to get both Caratini and Contreras in the starting lineup at the same time in search of more consistent offense?

"We haven't talked about that," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after Sunday's game. "We have a lot of guys who have to be in the lineup when things are rolling properly. I haven't looked at that right now, honestly."

Maddon conceded that as a switch-hitter, Caratini is still utilized almost exclusively as a left-handed hitter. The second-year player is hitting .556 with a homer and a double from the right side this season, but that's come in only 10 plate appearances.

Maddon also admitted the best way to get both catchers in the lineup at the same time is if there's an injury or a natural day off for a regular player. For example, Contreras played a game in right field in Pittsburgh before the All-Star Break while Caratini started behind the plate with both Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward nursing minor injuries.

Caratini has also drawn some starts at first base over the last couple years when Anthony Rizzo is either ailing or getting a day off. 

But beyond that, it doesn't appear as if we're gonna see Contreras and Caratini as cohorts in the starting lineup on even a semi-regular basis.

"Maybe part of the reason they're both playing so well or Victor's hitting as well as he is or playing as well as he is is based on the amount of usage," Maddon said. "Everybody sees a guy do well and all of a sudden, that immediately indicates he should play more often. Maybe just playing the right amount."