What’s Cubs’ Plan at Backup Catcher?

CI’s Evan Altman wrote Monday about how the Nationals signing free agent catcher Kurt Suzuki removes a backup catching option for the Cubs and I agree with that concern. However, I admit this assumes the Cubs want an upgrade at backup catcher, and there, we are each just reading tea leaves.

In fact, the Cubs’ thinking at backup catcher is probably murkier than any other part of their offseason plans. That’s because we have very little sense of how happy the team is with current backup Victor Caratini.

On the one hand, Caratini is a slightly below average pitch framer, blocker, and thrower. The 24-year-old doesn’t hit homers and last year had three poor hitting months that stick in our minds far more than his two quality months (April and July). All told, this adds up to a pretty standard cost-controlled backup catcher.

On the other hand, Joe Maddon didn’t trust Caratini enough to give him significant starts in August (6) when a clearly struggling Contreras most needed rest. The team even traded for backup Bobby Wilson on Aug. 30, but injuries kept him from playing a single game with the Cubs.

So how to assess the Cubs’ assessment of Caratini? No one should expect him to make any great leaps forward on defense or as power threat. But his two Triple-A stints in 2017 and ’18 suggested a productive singles and doubles hitter who rapped 34 two-baggers and posted a .933 OPS over 463 Triple-A plate appearances.

But if the organization truly wanted defensive improvement from Caratini, why didn’t they give him more starts at catcher once he was demoted to Iowa last year? Despite playing for Iowa manager Marty Pevey, a former catcher and former roving catching coach, Caratini caught just 18 of 31 games he started there.

One explanation could have been injury, but if Caratini was nursing something, it didn’t keep him from starting at first. Plus, he played in 12 games in 12 days before returning to Chicago in early July. When I asked Pevey about this, he said doesn’t answer questions about his lineup choices. Fair enough.

So is this backup catcher issue more about Maddon than Caratini? Is the front office upset with a stubborn refusal by Maddon to rest Contreras more by giving additional starts to Caratini? Was Maddon’s overuse of Contreras similar to his handling of Aroldis Chapman and Wade Davis in the playoffs, throwing Brandon Morrow three days in a row, and grinding Steve Cishek down until he went from excellent setup man to inconsistent single-batter specialist?

There’s logic to this line of speculation. However, you can’t blame Maddon for Caratini’s light catching load at Iowa. Thus the head-scratching continues.

The good news is this discussion is all about backup catcher. Contreras is the team’s starter and will remain so unless stricken by injury. In addition, he and Caratini are young and cost-controlled, which is exactly what this team’s payroll needs. So why should the Cubs even be in market for a new backup?

Well, some say Conteras’ second-half tumble necessitates a better insurance policy. Okay, we don’t know if this reflects front-office thinking. And those offensive issues in the second half went deeper than just starting 77 of the team’s first 100 games. It’s not like he ran out of gas the last few weeks of the season. He deflated the last two months. That points to something more fundamental in Contreras.

Contreras did say after the Wild Card game that he learned something this year about how to prepare for the rigors for a long season. This was a somewhat surprising to hear from a player in his third major league season, but let’s hope he’s figured something out for 2019. While the Cubs don’t need him to replicate his 30 great games in the middle of 2017 for a whole season, they just want start-to-finish consistency (and running out all long fly balls).

Like I said before, all we’ve got is tea-leaf reading. Because when it comes to the Cubs’ backup catching plans, your guess is as good as mine. However, if Caratini is included in a trade package for a quality back-end reliever or leadoff man, I’d happily sign the switch-hitting Matt Wieters as backup. Of course, I’d expect Wieters to cost more than Suzuki, which brings us back to Evan’s implied question…

Why weren’t the Cubs interested in Suzuki?

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