Setting aside the idea of Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, the Cubs had several needs this winter that could have been addressed even with their restrictive budget. And they’ve been able to work within those parameters for the most part, mainly by loading up on relief arms and creating lots of depth with minor league deals. But one area in which they’ve made no discernible headway is backup catcher.
There’s no question as to the alpha at the position, with Willson Contreras coming off a season in which he caught the most innings in MLB and still capable of MVP-level performance. Yet that workload is exactly why the Cubs should have been seeking out a competent backup, even with Victor Caratini in the fold. And maybe they’re perfectly content to role with the switch-hitting Caratini, it’s just that their current duo doesn’t seem ideal.
The Cubs ranked near the bottom the league in terms of defensive metrics and, even though Contreras is working to get “quieter” this winter, that’s in need of serious improvement. And while can expect a little growth in that aspect, Caratini doesn’t present much of a foil for Contreras because he doesn’t offer the decided improvement on defense you need to justify the offensive disparity between the two.
It’s not outside the realm of possibility for Caratini to become a defensive whiz, but a future as a bat-first backstop is far more likely. Even so, catcher is the most difficult position on the field at which to achieve mastery and that can’t be done by getting one or two starts a week.
The Cubs have proven that they can effectively balance three catchers on the roster and doing so was an integral part of their World Series run, but that practice may not make as much sense now. That said, the best thing for both the Cubs and Caratini might be to give him a full-time opportunity elsewhere while finding a capable veteran to spell Contreras.
As you might imagine, the sluggish free agent market still possesses an ideal candidate for that latter role in Martin Maldonado. The 32-year-old spent most of his career with the Brewers, then won a Gold Glove with Angels in 2017 and was traded to the Astros last season. So he clearly has elite defensive chops, he’s familiar with the NL Central, and he’s earned the respect of those who’ve worked with him.
“I think that’s what impresses us most about Martin, is how he dives into the game plan and pitch execution,” former Angels manager Mike Scioscia said in 2017. “He’d rather catch a shutout than hit two home runs.”
How the hell is this guy still available? Well, it’s probably because he’s got the audacity to “hope for the protection of a full major-league guarantee,” according to Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times. With several of his peers either retiring or agreeing to minor league deals recently, Maldonado represents one of the last two prime catchers on the market (Matt Wieters is the other).
Maldonado earned $3.9 million last season and isn’t likely to be seeking that much this season. Even if he is, we’re looking at a recent Gold Glover who doesn’t have nearly as much wear as you might expect for a player of his age. Though he’s made 242 starts behind the plate over the past two seasons, Maldonado totaled just 256 starts combined over the previous six seasons.
Contreras, on the other hand, has already made 255 starts in his three big league seasons. And that includes a rookie year in which he wasn’t called up until June and then played as part of a trio of catchers. Oh, then there’s the hamstring that cost him a month in late 2017. And the Cubs wouldn’t be willing to throw a little money at Maldonado why?
“That’s a pretty easy question to answer,” Tom Ricketts could tell you. “We don’t have any more.”
Oh sure, that makes sense. Listen, I know it’s not as simple as just picking up the phone and finding a team willing to send back a decent prospect for Caratini just to clear a roster spot for Maldonado. Wait, maybe it is that easy. Or maybe the Cubs really do see some things in their young backup to indicate that he can indeed carry the load and be a legitimate force in Contreras’s stead.
If that’s the case, it’d be silly to blow a minimal salary on an experienced catcher who would elevate the team’s defense and set an example for Contreras. Besides, the veteran pitchers on the staff can pretty much handle themselves and certainly don’t need the help of an elite batterymate to augment their shrinking margins for error. And Carl Edwards Jr. is probably cool working through tough spots and new mechanics all on his own. Nothing to see here, move along.
Whatever transpires, I just hope Maldonado is able to land a guaranteed deal. Tom Verducci can hold up Machado’s monster contract as a sign that free agency is not broken, but I’d counter with some of these veteran catchers to say it’s sure as hell not in a good state.