The 25-piece puzzle that is an opening day roster was practically all in place before even one pitch was thrown in Cubs spring training. And the picture of who will be on the field in Miami for Opening Day became even clearer when Manager Joe Maddon on Saturday announced Victor Caratini as the backup catcher to start the season.
The move came as a surprise to some after the Cubs had signed veteran backup catcher Chris Gimenez this January to a minor league contract.
Entering his age 24 season, Caratini has moved steadily through the Cubs’ farm system since he was acquired in a 2014 trade from the Atlanta Braves. In late June of last year, he got the call-up to the majors and made 10 starts in 31 games.
Defensively, Caratini is a sub-par catcher: last season in Iowa he had FRAA of -3.1. Much of his defensive woes came from his pitch framing. In Triple-A he had -3.7 framing runs. But while limited to only 75 2/3 innings behind the plate in the majors, Caratini showed signs of improving his framing. Though still not good, his FRAA was -0.3, and his framing runs were only -0.6.
Aside from catching, he also had substantial time at first base last season, both in Iowa and Chicago. Look for him to be used as a late-inning substitute and to get plenty of pinch-hitting appearances. Around half of the games he played with the Cubs began with a pinch-hitting plate appearance. You’d also expect him to sub Willson Contreras about once every time through the rotation.
If Caratini remains in the majors or not will likely come down to his bat. Last season he gave a glimpse of what he has the potential of doing offensively. While in Triple-A he hit .342/.393/.558 with a .319 TAv and .951 OPS.
His numbers did drop while playing in the majors, but the potential shown in Iowa had to have been a tempting force when deciding who to pick as the backup catcher. Should his offensive numbers come close to what he produced in last year in Iowa, it will make it easy for the Cubs to overlook his defensive shortcomings.
The pressure to perform will be immediate for Caratini, and a sluggish start could mean a quick demotion back to the Iowa. Waiting in Des Moines will be 35-year-old Chris Gimenez. The nine-year veteran looked to be the favorite for the backup spot coming into spring training.
Last season was the most productive of Gimenez’s career. He posted a career-high WARP of 1.1 for the Minnesota Twins over 475 2/3 innings caught, which was also a career high. Much of his value came from his improved framing. In 2017 he had 4.9 framing runs, which was 2.2 runs better than his previous season-high, and it also good enough to have him finish 20th amongst all MLB catchers.
With the bat, Cubs should not expect much from Gimenez; he is a career .218 hitter with 20 home runs. After nine seasons in the American League, this season is (potentially) Gimenez’s first in the National League. This would mean he’d have to adjust to pinch-hitting more frequently than his current 17 career pinch-hitting appearances.
Should Gimenez be called up, he will have familiarity with two important people in the Cubs clubhouse. In 2012 and 2013 Gimenez played under Maddon while playing for the Tampa Bay Rays, and in 2014 he caught Yu Darvish while with the Texas Rangers.
In 2017, Willson Contreras brought clear stability to the starting catcher role, which in previous years the team had been lacking. The same was not able to be said about the backup catcher role. Miguel Montero, Rene Rivera, Alex Avila and Caratini all received significant playing time behind the plate. This upcoming season the Cubs will look to bring similar stability to the backup catcher role, and they’ve initially chosen Victor Caratini to fulfill that role.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Kartozian—USA Today Sports