Almost exactly a year ago, on June 19, 2016, Cubs catching prospect Willson Contreras received a standing ovation in the first major league at bat of his career. Contreras, who made a dramatic leap onto the prospect radar with a monster 2015 season, had sustained his success in 2016 at Triple-A Iowa and suddenly was a much-heralded rookie. Then he launched the first big league pitch he ever saw 415 feet.
This year, another Cubs catching prospect is having a great start in Des Moines. But if the quietly successful Victor Caratini makes his Wrigley Field debut in 2017, don’t expect a standing ovation in his first at bat. But just because Caratini has flown under the radar so far, doesn’t mean that he should be ignored.
Initially selected in the second round of the 2013 draft by the Atlanta Braves, Caratini toiled away for a year and a half in the Braves organization, looking like a good average, high on base player. Caratini was acquired by the Cubs at the 2014 trade deadline in a deal that sent Emilio Bonifacio and James Russell to Atlanta. He arrived in 2014 in Class A ball and the Cubs have taken a slow and steady approach to his development, advancing him one level each year since. Finally, this year, he hit the Pacific Coast League and has been added to the 40-man roster.
Caratini has never been considered one of the Cubs’ top prospects but has always remained a solid one – typically landing somewhere between the 10 and 20 spots on Cubs’ prospect rankings lists since 2014. That means when the Cubs’ farm system included Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Addison Russell, Caratini was in the 10-20 range. Without those players in the system? Still in the 10-20 range. Essentially, Caratini’s value and future potential has not seen much increase throughout his years in the system.
Caratini is off to the best start of his career by a wide margin. Currently, he holds a .346/.388/.525 slash line and has already tied his career high in homers with 6 in just 237 at bats. Though the PCL is a notoriously hitter-friendly league, these numbers give Caratini one of the best stat lines in it, and furthermore, the best of any catcher in the PCL with over 150 plate appearances so far this season.
Though he has never been a slouch at the plate, having hit to a .291/.375/.405 line last season in Double-A, Caratini’s offensive improvement this season is particularly notable. According to The Des Moines’ Register’s Tommy Birch (who kindly spoke with me for this piece) Caratini is looking to improve on hitting to all fields.
“From talking to him and his hitting coaches, Caratini had problems pulling the ball last season,” Birch told me. “He’d often roll over on balls and turn them into weak grounders. But, he’s done a ton of work off tees and in the cages and is making better contact so he can not only pull the ball better but use all areas of the field.”
This hard work is backed up by the stats. According to Fangraphs, Caratini, a switch hitter, is pulling the ball at a 49.7 percent rate, the best he’s done in his career over an extended period and a 5 percent increase already from last year’s 44.7 percent rate.
Nonetheless, it is fair to question if any of Caratini’s breakout is a mirage. Though his numbers are career bests, his walk rate has dropped to a career low of 7.2 percent (down from last year’s 11.3). Additionally, he has a particularly high .390 BABIP, which is significantly higher than any point earlier in his career. That said, perhaps this is all emulative of a greater change in Caratini’s approach in which he looks to become a less patient hitter and attack balls he can pull easier and hit harder. It should also be noted that his strikeout rate has also dropped a bit to the lowest of his career at 15.6 percent.
Then there are the positional questions. Caratini initially played third base in the Braves’ organization, before being converted to catcher, a position he had played a little in college during the 2014 season. According to this article from Birch, Iowa manager Marty Pevey initially saw Caratini as someone who had clearly converted to catcher, but is beginning seeing him become more comfortable behind the plate.
Before the year started, MLB.com wrote that Caratini “has worked hard to become an adequate receiver and has solid arm strength, albeit with slow footwork and transfer.” So, though there is certainly room for improvement, Birch says Caratini has looked solid so far this year.
“He’s had some balls get by him but he has showed a strong arm and is typically quiet behind the plate,” said Birch. He also noted he doesn’t see him getting shaken off too much by the Iowa pitchers.
Caratini also has played first base in over 20 games so far this year, meaning his versatility keeps his bat developing daily, even on days he isn’t behind the plate.
As for the future, Caratini is already on the Cubs’ 40-man roster, meaning he could theoretically get the call to Wrigley whenever a need arises. But, since the Cubs have been so reticent to aggressively promote him so far in his career, it would be rather surprising to see him up any time before September, unless a serious injury to Contreras or Miguel Montero really forces the Cubs’ hand. But, at a minimum, a cup of coffee come September seems like it would be merited by the year he has had so far.
Of course, the Cubs will have a catching vacancy going into the 2018 season as Montero is set to be a free agent at year’s end. Though the Cubs have typically opted for a more seasoned veteran presence in the backup catcher role, Caratini’s offensive breakout may pique the front office’s curiosity enough to give him a real look come 2018.
In the present, Caratini appears poised to be the starting catcher for the PCL in the Triple-A All-Star game. He will look to continue the success he has had earlier this season with pulling the ball and making harder contact, and also continue to improve on getting comfortable behind the plate and working with his pitching staff. He may be under the radar right now, but if he keeps all this up, that won’t be for long.
Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports