Spring Training 2019 is right around the corner and that means the regular season is not far away either. In just a handful of days, the Chicago Cubs will report to camp, with pitchers and catchers holding first workouts on February 13 and position players following on Feb. 18.
Since the Cubs’ early exit from the 2018 postseason, the front office and fans alike have been itching for players to get back on the diamond. Much of that sentiment centers around the Cubs’ inability to secure the division down the stretch last season, instead yielding the National League Central title to the Milwaukee Brewers in a deciding Game 163.
An offensive break-down post-All-Star break last season contributed to the Cubs finishing outside of the top spot in the division for the first time since 2015. Following the All-Star break, the Cubs had 13 players who recorded at least 100 plate appearances. Of those, eight posted a wRC-plus less than 100 (league average) with Addison Russell bringing up the rear with a 28 mark in 134 plate appearances.
In addition to Russell, both Willson Contreras and Victor Caratini found themselves on the list of eight under-achieving players following the break. Contreras was the better of the two Cubs catchers down the stretch, posting a 62 wRC-plus while Caratini managed a mark of just 43, the second worst on the team.
For Contreras, those struggles turned an All-Star-caliber start to the season into his worst offensive season since he broke into the big leagues back in 2016.
2019, however, is a new year which brings a new season, one in which Contreras and the Cubs hope to capitalize upon to once again become a World Series-caliber team.
The Cubs returning to their old selves would be much easier if the production from their catching corps, primarily Contreras, returned to its 2016 levels.
With that in mind, let’s take a more in-depth look at the Cubs’ catcher situation ahead of their report date to Spring Training.
Catcher’s Depth Chart
- Willson Contreras
- Victor Caratini
- Taylor Davis
1) Willson Contreras
For the third straight season, Contreras will be the Cubs’ Opening Day starter at the catcher position. A long road to the big leagues saw Contreras spend parts of eight seasons in the minor leagues before finally making his major league debut in the summer of 2016.
Immediately, Contreras showed why he deserved to be in The Show, mashing his first home run in his first at-bat, kicking off what would be a well above average first 76 games for the 24-year-old.
In those contests, Contreras cemented himself as the Cubs’ catcher of the future, slashing .282/.357/.488 with 12 home runs and 35 RBI for an OPS-plus of 122. While his first taste of big league action proved to be a success, there was obvious room to grow for the youngster. For starters, his lofty 23.7 percent strikeout rate during his rookie season raised a red flag or two as did his 54.3 percent ground ball rate and less-than-stellar 27.7 percent fly ball rate. Nonetheless, the holes on Contreras’ game were overshadowed by his solid hard contact rate of 32.3 percent in 2016, a number that helped produce a .206 ISO.
Contreras’ first full season on the major league roster, 2017, brought with it some improvements in key areas. Both his strikeout rate (22.9 percent) and walk rate (10.5 percent) improved, as did his hard contact rate (35.5 percent) and fly ball rate (29.3 percent). More balls hit in the air and hit hard produced 21 home runs and a .499 slugging percentage for the young catcher in 2017. Those numbers, along with his .356 OBP, produced a 10 point increase in his OPS from ’16 to ’17 and kept his OPS-plus at a lofty 118.
Across 117 games in 2017, Contreras’ hard-hitting ways (plus his well above average defense) produced 3.3 wins above replacement. Contreras’ combination of 20-plus home run potential and elite defense gives the Cubs an All-Star-caliber catcher for the next few years.
Unfortunately for Contreras and the Cubs, however, the next step in the youngster’s development will come with some growing pains, like the ones we saw in 2018.
As stated above, Contreras jumped out to a fast start last season, in the process earning his first All-Star Game bid. Prior to the break, Contreras was doing it all, getting on base, not striking out a ton and providing above average offensive value. One area that needed improvement, however, in Contreras’ first half was his ability to drive the baseball consistently. While his wRC-plus sat at a lofty 123 at the break, Contreras hit just seven home runs and produced a slugging percentage of only .449. The root of those lackluster numbers centered around Contreras’ 31.7 percent hard contact rate in the first half of action, a number that did not supplement his 34.7 percent fly ball rate very well.
Even without his power-hitting ability, Contreras was still an offensive force as he posted an OBP of .369 prior to the break which fueled a solid .818 OPS.
Following his appearance in the All-Star Game, Contreras suffered a terrible second half. Perhaps due to him leading the league in innings caught behind the dish, or something else, every important offensive number for Contreras took a nose-dive following the break.
Beginning with his batted ball profile, it’s pretty clear that Contreras just ran out of gas down the stretch. Already prone to hitting the ball on the ground, Contreras’ ground ball rate shot up to 57.9 percent in the second half while his fly ball rate plummeted to 23.8 percent. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Contreras’ hard contact rate followed in the foot steps of his fly ball rate, falling almost eight percentage points to 23.9 percent down the stretch. That drop, in turn, precipitated increases in both his medium and soft contact percentages.
As one could imagine, those numbers above did not bode well for Contreras’ counting statistics in the second half. His lack of hard contact resulted in an .094 second half ISO for the young backstop, a number that produced just 11 extra base hits (eight doubles and three home runs) after the break.
Additionally, Contreras managed a second half slash line of just .200/.291/.294/.585, numbers that all but wiped out his All-Star-caliber start to the season. His overall numbers for 2018 looked like this: .249/.339/.390/.730 with a career low 10 home runs. To go along with that, Contreras’ lackluster half season dragged his overall OPS-plus below 100 (92) for the first time in the youngster’s short big league career.
Whether Contreras’ second half can be traced back to his over-usage behind the dish remains to be seen. That, of course, is the most obvious reason, but there are always alternatives.
2019 Steamer projections according to Fangraphs: 115 G, .257 AVG, 22 2B, 14 HR, 58 RBI.
Without a proven back-up behind him on the depth chart, Contreras may be forced to once again lead the league in innings caught this season.
Looking to help relieve some of the workload on Contreras, however, is Victor Caratini.
2) Victor Caratini
Behind Contreras, the Cubs’ depth at the catcher position wanes considerably. Barring any last-minute trades before Spring Training, Caratini will open the season as Contreras’ back-up for the second consecutive year.
Caratini became a Cub in the summer of 2014 when he was part of a trade that sent Emilio Bonifacio and James Russell to the Atlanta Braves. From that time, Caratini has torn up the Cubs’ minor league system, slashing .342/.393/.558/.951 across 83 games at the Triple-A level in 2017.
That production, which included 10 home runs and 61 RBI, earned Caratini a 31-game stint at the major league level beginning in June of 2017. Caratini’s minor league numbers, however, failed to translate to the big league level as he slashed just .254/.333/.356/.689 in 66 plate appearances. Those numbers produced an OPS-plus of 79 or 21 percent below the major league average.
As for Caratini’s batted ball profile, he seems to be a more extreme version of Contreras. In his first taste of the big leagues back in 2017, Caratini posted a ground ball rate of 65.2 percent, meaning his fly ball rate debuted below 20 percent at 19.6. One positive for the youngster was his promising hard contact rate of 30.4 percent. Despite that solid number, however, Caratini managed an ISO of just .102 his rookie season, a product of his lack of extra base hits (three doubles and one home run).
With the Cubs’ decision to go with Chris Gimenez as their backup catcher to begin the 2018 season, Caratini was once again relegated to Triple-A. Like 2017, Caratini ripped up Iowa to the tune of a .313/.409/.478/.887 slash line over 32 games and 137 plate appearances.
Gimenez’s lack of production at the major league level prompted the Cubs to make a change around a month into the season. Caratini, however, didn’t provide much more value than Gimenez. Across 76 games and exactly 200 plate appearances following his promotion, the young backstop slashed just .232/.293/.304/.597 with two home runs and 21 RBI.
Very much like his first stint in the majors, Caratini posted a low-20’s strikeout rate (21 percent) and lackluster walk rate of six percent. With that combination, along with his drop in hard contact (28.2 percent), it’s no wonder why Caratini struggled to get on-base in 2018.
One positive, however, for Caratini in 2018 came in the batted ball department as his ground ball rate dropped almost 13 percentage points to 52.9 percent while both his fly ball and line-drive rates experienced increases.
Overall, Caratini has racked up 107 games and 266 plate appearances at the big league level over two seasons. In that time, he owns a .620 OPS and park adjusted OPS of just 63 or 37 percent less than league average. That lackluster offensive production is a leading cause in why Caratini has caught only 366.1 innings at the major league level that includes 290.2 innings last season.
For Caratini to fully tap into his potential, he will need to bring his Triple-A numbers to Wrigley Field. Not only would that help Caratini earn more playing time, but it would, in turn, relieve some of the load off Contreras’ shoulders moving forward.
In saying that, it’s not crazy to think that Caratini’s offensive production is the key to Contreras getting back to his All-Star-caliber self.
2019 Steamer projections according to Fangraphs: 38 G, .262 AVG, 8 2B, 3 HR, 17 RBI.
3) Taylor Davis
From 49th round draft pick by the Florida Marlins in 2008 to major league debut on September 8, 2017, Taylor Davis has had a long road to the big leagues.
From 2011 to 2017, Davis made his way through the Cubs’ system finding the most success in 2014 and 2015 at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. His .875 OPS in 2014 with Tennessee remains his best since his first professional season back in ’11.
Since 2014, Davis has posted OPS’s of .845, .698 and .786 from 2015-2017. In 2015, Davis set his career high in home runs with nine, while his watermark in the RBI department came two years later in 2017.
Those 62 RBI in ’17 (and the September roster expansion) helped Davis earn his first taste of the big leagues. An eight game stint produced a .538 OPS across 13 plate appearances while another five game cup-of-coffee in 2018 generated a much better .733 mark.
Still, Davis’ first measurable stint at the major league level has produced less-than-stellar results that include a .596 OPS and 54 park adjusted mark.
Davis will likely start the season at the Triple-A level and third on the depth chart.
2019 Steamer projections according to Fangraphs: 3 G, .244 AVG, 1 2B, 0 HR, 1 RBI.
Down on the Farm
In addition to the three players mentioned above, the Cubs have invited three non-roster catchers to Spring Training.
Francisco Arcia was signed to a minor league deal by the Cubs back in January and represents the most big league experience of the three catchers invited to camp. In 2018, Arcia appeared in 40 games for the Los Angeles Angels and posted a slash line of .204/.226/.427/.654 with six home runs and 23 RBI. Additionally, Arcia committed two errors across 221 innings behind the dish for a .990 fielding percentage.
If Arcia sticks, he will provide extra depth at the Triple-A level and give the Cubs someone with a little more big league experience compared to Davis.
P.J. Higgins was a 12th round pick by the Cubs back in 2015 and made it as high as Double-A in 2018. Between Single-A Advanced and Double-A last season, Higgins posted a slash line of .271/.353/.366/.719 with four home runs and 52 RBI.
Overall, Higgins owns a professional OPS of .712, a number that will need to increase if he hopes to crack the depth chart as a catcher.
Ian Rice was drafted by the Cubs in the 29th round of the 2015 draft after having been selected in two previous drafts by the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox. Last season, Rice appeared at Double-A Tennessee where he played in 88 games. In those games, the then 24-year-old slashed .250/.386/.401/.787 with eight home runs and 30 RBI.
Much like Higgins, Rice is sporting a career OPS of .790 despite having hit 42 home runs in 351 minor league games.
Entering his age 25 season, the clock for Rice to make the big leagues is ticking and may run out if he doesn’t distance himself from other names ahead of him on the depth chart.
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