Victor Caratini, Taylor Davis and the state of Cubs catching depth

Victor Caratini, Taylor Davis and the state of Cubs catching depth

Taylor Davis knows exactly where the cameras are at Wrigley Field and now those cameras will be watching him as Willson Contreras' backup for at least the short-term future.

A CT scan Friday morning confirmed the Cubs' fear that Victor Caratini had a broken hamate bone in his left hand and he will undergo surgery Monday. He's expected to miss 4-6 weeks with the injury and Davis was called up from Triple-A Iowa in Caratini's place.

Davis was informed he might be on the move Thursday evening, after Caratini felt something in his left hand on the first pitch of his seventh-inning at-bat (he later doubled home an insurance run). Davis landed in Chicago at 8 a.m. Friday morning and was in uniform for the series opener against the Angels at Wrigley Field.

With Caratini out until late-May/early-June, the Cubs may opt to look outside the organization for additional catching depth. Davis was the only other backstop on the Cubs' 40-man roster and has just 13 games of MLB experience under his belt. He's only been behind the plate for 6 innings in The Show, but the 29-year-old has spent parts of the last five seasons in Triple-A and has appeared in 299 minor-league games as a catcher.

"I'm probably one of the longest-tenured Cubs here," Davis joked. "Not in the big leagues, but I know most of the guys on the staff, so that definitely helps."

The Cubs also have Francisco Arcia as catching depth in Triple-A, but he doesn't have much big-league experience either (40 games, all coming with the Angels in 2018) and is not on the 40-man roster after signing a minor-league deal over the winter.

"I wouldn't doubt we're probably looking [externally] a little bit," Joe Maddon said Friday morning. "I will say that's probably true. But for right now, we're really happy with Taylor. He's really grown among the group. He's a very good receiver — the guys like him a lot for that.

"Offensively speaking, he comes up with some big knocks, too. ... He's definitely grown over the last couple years. I think he's very comfortable and I know our pitchers are very comfortable with him."

Theo Epstein and the Cubs front office acknowledged they were in the market for veteran catching depth in the offseason, but nothing came to fruition. That may change now, but this injury certainly won't change how the organization feels about Caratini and his fit for the role long-term, especially after the way he started the season (.571 average, 1.647 OPS, 3 doubles, 1 homer, 5 RBI).

"He was looking so good," Maddon said. "He was pretty upset yesterday; he knew how well he was playing. He knew what was going on. It's really unfortunate. It's one of those injuries...they're very freakish. They're taken care of, but they put you down for a bit."

Last spring, Caratini beat out veteran Chris Gimenez for the backup catcher role and spent much of the year in Chicago in that capacity. But he didn't have the type of season most were expecting at the plate while playing sparingly (.232 average, .597 OPS).

This spring, he said he came to camp a lot more confident and with the belief that he belongs in the big leagues. 

"He does things quietly," Maddon said. "He's not demanding, he doesn't ask for explanations. He just keeps doing his work. During camp, he wasn't throwing that well and then all of a sudden, his arm just started getting stronger. So he's just one of those guys that continually does his work. He's not flashy by any means, but he's very competent.

"The guy's a good baseball player. The way he's hitting here recently is kinda how he's hit in the minor leagues on a consistent basis. None of it's surprising when a guy starts doing it here. When he's done it before, you shouldn't be surprised. It's just unfortunate. He's done everything so well and right."

Davis' arrival to Wrigley Field continues the merry-go-round that is the Cubs roster so far in 2019.

On Friday morning, the Cubs suited up without six injured players (Caratini, Jon Lester, Mike Montgomery, Brandon Morrow, Xavier Cedeno, Tony Barnett), a trio of guys who have already been sent to the minor leagues (Carl Edwards Jr., Ian Happ, Brian Duensing), and a player on the restricted list serving out a suspension (Addison Russell).

That's not exactly what anybody expected for the April 12 roster.

But all that movement is an advantage for Davis, who already knew his pitching staff from spring training but also got to see Kyle Ryan, Allen Webster and Tim Collins in Triple-A before the promotion. 

Regardless of what happens with the roster in Caratini's absence, the Cubs will have to rely on their catching depth for a game or two a week to ensure Willson Contreras gets enough rest.

Caratini may be able to resume baseball activities a few weeks after surgery and will be ready to return to Chicago once he's able to swing the bat without any issues. Even though the injury is to his glove hand, it will not have any impact on his catching.

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Cubs see Yu Darvish moving in the right direction as he returns to Wrigley Field

Cubs see Yu Darvish moving in the right direction as he returns to Wrigley Field

Yu Darvish said he wanted to hear "YUU!" instead of "BOO!" chanted at Wrigley Field this year during his starts.

He's about to get his chance. 

It's been almost a year since Darvish last pitched at Wrigley Field (May 2 against the Rockies) and this will only be his fourth career outing at The Friendly Confines in a Cubs uniform since he signed the 6-year, $126 million contract 14 months ago.

The numbers at home last year weren't good — 0-2, 5.40 ERA, 1.87 WHIP — but then again, 2018 was forgettable for Darvish in a lot of ways even before he was shut down with a bone bruise in his right pitching arm.

Unfortunately for him and the Cubs, this season has started off the same way. 

Darvish showed up to camp in Arizona looking like a different person, from the way he carried himself to the physical shape he was in to his confidence. To put it simply, he looked more free, which is exactly how he said he felt and what Joe Maddon and the rest of the Cubs coaches and front office members were seeing. 

He made four starts in Cactus League play, pitching around a blister issue and throwing up a 2.25 ERA while striking out 14 batters in 12 innings. 

However, he did walk 9 guys in those 12 frames and it's that lack of command that has translated to the regular season. 

In two starts so far in 2019, Darvish has walked 11 of the 36 batters he's faced, with 7 of those coming in just 2.2 innings in his return to Texas in Game 2 during Opening Weekend.

His next time out, Darvish's command was much improved, but he still walked 4 batters and gave up 5 hits and 3 runs and was pulled from the game after only 71 pitches and 4 innings. He insists the blister on his pitching hand is no longer an issue.

"The first start, obviously he was out of sorts and he had a hard time throwing strikes," Theo Epstein said. "The second start, there were a lot of positives with his stuff, especially his sider and cutter. And then he faced a little bit of adversity there, struggled a little bit and the outing was over pretty quickly.

"But hopefully he can build on the positives and have a good start on Wednesday night. But I don't think it's appropriate to issue start-to-start referendum on our starting pitchers as we go. He's looking to settle in. 

"The first start — as with a couple of our guys — wasn't what he looked for. He made some progress his last time and out; still certainly room for improvement going forward and I think he will."

Darvish's second start came in some tough conditions on a rainy night in Atlanta, but the weather didn't affect Braves starter Max Fried much, as he took a perfect game into the sixth inning.

Conditions will not be any better for Darvish's first home start on a cold and wet day in Chicago. Wind chill is expected to bump the temperature down to about 30 degrees for first pitch Wednesday night.

Cubs starting pitchers have accounted for the fewest innings in baseball to date (43, an average of 4.3 innings per start) and carry a 6.49 ERA into Wednesday night.

 

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Cubs see light at the end of the tunnel with bullpen

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AP

Cubs see light at the end of the tunnel with bullpen

The Cubs always knew they were going to need more than the eight relief pitchers they broke camp with, but they weren't necessarily expecting to have to dip into the reserves before they even played a home game.

Theo Epstein's front office tries to plan for everything and they understood this was a possible scenario, with Carl Edwards Jr. being sent down to the minor leagues to hit the reset button on his career and Mike Montgomery hitting the injured list with a left lat strain.

In their place, the Cubs called up left-hander Kyle Ryan and righty Allen Webster and after a tough debut Saturday, the pair of relievers combined for 2.2 shutout innings in Sunday's ballgame.

Who knows how long these two pitchers will stick, but the entire bullpen has started to look better of late and will take a string of 12 straight scoreless innings into Wednesday night's game with the Pirates at Wrigley Field.

That streak was boosted by a great outing from the group in Monday's home opener, as Brad Brach, Brandon Kintzler, Randy Rosario and Pedro Strop combined for 7 scoreless innings after Jon Lester left with an injury.

Could this be a sign of things to come for this bullpen?

"The good pitching can be contagious, but at the same time, the bad pitching can be contagious,"  Brach said. "I think now we're ready to get on a little bit of a role and hopefully 7 innings can go a long way to the next game."

"That'll build their confidence," Joe Maddon said. "They need that, the group needs that. They're all really good. ... I want to believe that an afternoon like today is gonna help build that confidnce out there that they sorely need."

Prior to this scoreless stretch, the Cubs bullpen carried a 9.85 ERA and 2.26 WHIP on the season. They're now at 6.92 and 1.86, respectively, which are still unsightly numbers, but obviously starting to trend in the right direction.

"There's a clear path to us having a really good bullpen and the primary factor in that is there's a lot of talent up here and we have depth and options, too," Epstein said Monday morning. "We'll just try to use good judgement and move along that path as quickly as we can. I think we're gonna get there."

Ryan and Webster could be part of the solution. The Cubs like how Ryan pounds the zone and induces a lot of weak contact and Webster has great stuff — an upper 90s fastball and a hard slider — plus the pedigree of a former top prospect. 

There's also more help on the way eventually, as injured veterans Brandon Morrow, Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette are all on the comeback trail. 

Morrow is recovering from November surgery on his elbow to clean everything up after a forearm bone bruise knocked him out of action for the second half of the 2018 season. He was expected to miss the first month of the season and is still on track for that.

"There's been no change to his timetable," Epstein said. "It would be impossible to say right now because a lot of it will be determined by how it responds to game action. He's completed all his 'pens so far without incident."

The Cubs will have more information on Morrow's next steps later in the week, though they don't have a set plan for a rehab stint yet. 

Cedeno (wrist) and Barnette (shoulder) were two of the Cubs' free agent additions to the bullpen this winter and Epstein confirmed Monday they're each nearing a rehab assignment.

It's still unclear how all these pieces will fit into the bullpen when they're all healthy (and nobody knows when or if Edwards will be back up in Chicago), but adding reliable veterans to this group of relievers is far from a bad thing.

Morrow is expected to serve in a high-leverage role upon his return, but the Cubs will exercise caution and don't plan on using him on back-to-back days initially. So even if he slides right back into the closer's spot, it won't be on an everyday basis.

The Cubs don't care as much about the names or roles in the bullpen so long as the production is there, which it wasn't for the first eight games. Some pitchers have admitted they're pressing and all trying to be the hero to lift the group out of the rut, and manager Joe Maddon believes they might be attempting to do too much at times.

For the Cubs to put their 2-7 start behind them and move forward, they're going to have to lean heavily on their relievers. 

"The stabilization has to come out of the bullpen," Maddon said. "We do have to pitch better in general, but we've done a lot of good things on the field. We've swung the bats pretty well. We have to stabilize the bullpen. 

"... So as you continue to move it forward, you're always looking for that formulaic method of playing the game — you get on top, your bullpen does the right job, you finish it off in the end. Always looking for that."

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