State of the Cubs: Catcher
Uncertainty will be the name of the game around Major League Baseball this winter as the league navigates its first offseason following the pandemic-shortened campaign.
It’s impossible to predict exactly how things will play out in a winter unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in the sport, but let’s take a look at where the Cubs stand with each position group heading into the offseason.
First up: Catchers
1. Willson Contreras
2. Victor Caratini
3. Miguel Amaya
4. P.J. Higgins
The Cubs are in arguably the most enviable spot in baseball in regards to the catching position. Contreras and Caratini are quite possibly the best 1-2 tandem in the league and both are under team control for at least the next two seasons.
Since the start of the 2019 season, Contreras ranks 4th in WAR (FanGraphs) and Caratini sits 24th among all MLB catchers. In other words, the Cubs have 2 of the Top 25 backstops in baseball and they’re both under 30 years of age — Contreras is 28, Caratini is 27.
If you were starting a team from scratch and could choose any player in the MLB universe to be your starting catcher, Contreras might be atop the list.
He has started as the National League’s backstop in the All-Star Game each of the past two years and possesses a unique blend of arm strength, offensive prowess and passion/energy. With his improved pitch-framing in 2020, Contreras might be the best catcher in baseball right now.
On that FanGraphs list of top catchers since the start of 2019, only J.T. Realmuto, Yasmani Grandal and Christian Vazquez posted a higher WAR total than Contreras’ 4.3. But Realmuto is a year older than Contreras, Grandal turns 32 next month and Vazquez doesn’t have anywhere near the track record and resume of Contreras.
And if you really want to know the impact Contreras has on the Cubs, look no further than Jon Lester. Contreras became the veteran southpaw’s personal catcher when David Ross retired and when asked about his battery mate during the playoffs, Lester unleashed an epic bout of praise on Contreras:
“Man, Willy’s grown up a lot,” Lester said. “I think people forget he just started catching in the grand scheme of things. Rossy caught for pretty much his whole life, so he’s been back there a long time. [Jason] Varitek, those guys — they caught for a long, long time. Willy was an infielder up until not too long ago. He converted to a position he’s never played and then he skyrockets to the big leagues and you expect him to catch games in the World Series, expect him to catch games in a pennant chase, in a division chase and expect him to learn in those situations. That’s hard to do.
“I think this year, this offseason and then coming into spring, we saw a little bit of a different Willy — a little more confident back there. I know guys have been on him about his pitch-framing and the pitch-stealing, all the new metrics, stuff behind the plate. I think the quarantine did him some good. He really focused on that catching side.
“The one thing I’ve seen over the last year, year-and-a-half that he’s done a really good job at in growing is separating his at-bats from coming behind the dish and that’s a hard, hard thing to do. You see it all the time in the infield, the outfield — guys take their at-bats out there. And that’s one position that that’s really important that you don’t do that with.
“He’s done an unbelievable job with growing, learning the new way he’s catching. He’s meant a lot. We’ve grown together. I’ve turned into a newer version of me — or, I guess, an older, newer version of me. We’ve had to adapt. We’ve had to learn on the fly and he’s meant a lot to me at this point in my career. The feedback and the confidence and the kick in the butts that he does sometimes. He’s just done a really good job — not only with me, but our whole staff.”
Consider all that and throw in the fact that Contreras spent the entire season hitting in the middle of the Cubs order and you have the makings of one of the most important players on the roster.
Caratini, meanwhile, continues to turn in patient, quality at-bats as a switch-hitter and mixes that with his work behind the plate that has drawn rave reviews from the pitching staff. As we await Yu Darvish’s finish in the 2020 Cy Young race, Caratini deserves credit for Darvish’s success as the veteran right-hander really took off in a Cubs uniform when he started throwing to Caratini full-time.
The Cubs have a great system of playing time worked out between the pair, as it’s guaranteed Caratini will start once every five days at Darvish’s personal catcher. That means built-in rest time for Contreras and ensures Caratini won’t get too rusty at the end of the bench.
The designated hitter spot also proved valuable for the Cubs catchers as Ross almost always utilized Contreras as the DH on days he didn’t catch while Caratini also spent a lot of time as the extra hitter.
The Cubs may add a veteran catcher this winter as depth in the minor leagues, as Josh Phegley is set to become a free agent.
Amaya is one of the organization’s most exciting prospects, but he’s still probably a couple years away from the big leagues — especially since he wasn’t able to get any in-game experience in 2020.
There is always the chance the Cubs front office opts to trade one of Contreras or Caratini this winter to deal from a position of strength to shore up another aspect of the roster. But short of that, the big question surrounding the Cubs catchers lies in the future of the DH spot. Many around the game have been preparing for the arrival of the DH in the NL as part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that starts in 2022, but the shortened season brought the change earlier than expected.
Will the DH spot stick around for 2021? And if it does, will Ross and the Cubs continue to deploy one of their catchers behind the plate and the other as the DH?
Chances are, the DH in the NL isn’t going anywhere and the Cubs will probably add another veteran bat or two this winter to compete for that spot.
Ultimately, the DH would be a good thing for the 2021 Cubs as it would mean more opportunities to get Contreras’ bat in the lineup on an everyday basis even when he’s not catching.
The catching position is probably at the very bottom of the Cubs’ list of concerns this winter and unless there’s a trade, this tandem should again be one of the best units in baseball in 2021.