Acquiring Martin Maldonado shortly after last night’s disappointing loss to the Reds (whom the Cubs are now 3-7 against, sigh) came as a bit of a surprise. While the Cubs reportedly had interest in Maldonado during the off-season Victor Caratini‘s breakout season (123 wRC+ in 111 plate appearances with solid framing skills behind the dish) diminished the perceived need for a veteran back-up presence to Willson Contreras.
Opting to place one of the game’s elite backstops on the IL changed the Cubs’ catching landscape however, even if only in the short-term. The trade for Maldonado on its face seems appropriate, providing Mike Montgomery a chance to start in Kansas City while giving Caratini a viable backstop partner (sorry, Taylor Davis) in the two weeks leading up to the trade deadline. What happens when Willson returns is anybody’s guess, but make no mistake: this roster maneuver signals quite clearly that Theo and Jed will be flexing their creativity before August.
How does Maldonado Impact Future Moves?
While it’s certainly accurate to claim the Cubs now have the best catching depth in baseball, Maldonado was hardly traded purely to provide long-term depth. Caratini does have one option left, though it’d be laughable for the Cubs to send him to Iowa upon Willson’s return. This move, then, emphasizes the front office’s desire to keep the catcher position afloat in the hopes that, indeed, Contreras returns after the minimum 10 days. It also buys them time to work out the parameters on a deal that depletes from their newfound catching depth for an experienced bat or established lefty reliever.
Flipping Maldonado after a brief cameo on the North Side is far from out of the question. While his value isn’t sky-high other teams were certainly interested in his services before the Cubs acquired him, his defensive reputation something that contending teams covet in a serviceable back-up. There are certainly roadblocks to this scenario, however, as the teams most likely to be interested in Maldonado share similar needs to the Cubs (bullpen depth and solid-contact hitters). On the converse, Caratini suddenly becomes a valuable — and expendable — trade chip.
Parting with Victor would sting, of course, as his switch-hitting capability and ability to back-up Anthony Rizzo at first only strengthens his value. He is a more appealing trade chip than Maldonado, though, especially since he comes with affordable team control through the 2023 campaign. His emerging talent and the fact he has yet to reach arbitration pegs him as an ideal trade candidate to a rebuilding team — especially a team looking to unload veteran rentals for long-term pieces.
With Theo Epstein openly stating the unlikelihood of dealing from the top of their farm system, and a lackluster second tier of prospects to work with otherwise, the Cubs will certainly continue to deal from their major league roster in order to shore up the team’s flaws. No one knows yet what this ultimately means, but it doesn’t take much analyzing to see how valuable a trade chip Caratini just became.
If the Cubs are indeed in heavy pursuit of Will Smith then Caratini fits the mold as the centerpiece for such a deal. Smith’s value to this Cubs ‘pen would be immense, and because he’s a rental without the track record of, say, Aroldis Chapman, a top-tier prospect should not be required to get him. Buster Posey remains under contract through 2022, of course, though he’s now 32 years old and carries an injury history the Giants would like to caution against. A player like Caratini would buttress their long-term catching depth while extending the life of the face of their franchise.
While it’s a bit premature to suggest a Caratini-plus for Smith deal has been talked about, it’s a logical starting point in the aftermath of last night’s surprise move.
How Creative might the Front Office be?
While not traditional, it’s not unheard of to carry three catchers on a roster, and should the front office decide to hold onto this depth even after Contreras returns, they have other trade pieces to utilize. Kyle Schwarber remains on the periphery of trade rumors, though clearly without the same value he had while recovering from injury in 2016. Moving Schwarbs for bullpen help or a veteran bat would open up playing time in left, and many folks probably recall Contreras serving time there during his rookie campaign, and he’s also logged 10.1 innings in right field this season.
While on its face this seems possible, Sahadev Sharma with The Athletic commented to his most recent article that Joe Maddon has already contemplated such a maneuver. While the skipper admitted Contreras playing outfield could be a de facto day off, Sharma frames such speculation to be tepid at best. Of course the trade for Maldonado could renew that thought process (especially if Schwarber is ultimately dealt) but it seems more far-fetched than rooted in any seriousness.
Gearing up for the Deadline
As fans we should be excited by last night’s move, not because it answers the most pressing questions regarding the roster, but because it opens myriad opportunities for that to now happen. Added depth while parting with a superfluous talent (beloved as Monty should be!) hedges the team’s bets in case Contreras misses significant time while allowing a new pool of major league talent to become expendable if necessary.
It remains impossible to know whether or not this team has a deep playoff run in them, but the move for Maldonaldo suggests the front office will explore every avenue they can in order to make the playoffs.
When the dust settles after July 31 let’s hope the roster is where it needs to be.
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