Coming out of spring training in 2018 the Chicago Cubs didn’t have many tough decisions to make. One of the very few was Willson Contreras’ back-up at catcher. In a surprising move, at the time at least, the Cubs passed over veteran Chris Gimenez and named Víctor Caratini as their opening day 2018 backup catcher. From a pure talent standpoint the move made a lot of sense. Caratini is very talented and was a top prospect in the Cubs organization. Gimenez was a proven defense-first backup, and that was about the most you were going to get out of him. Still, people were, for the most part, surprised, because the common belief at the time was that Caratini needed more than just backup reps to continue his development.
2018 didn’t end up going the way Caratini, or anyone really, imagined, I’d wager. He was awful right out of the gate, an offense-first backup catcher who was providing little-to-no offense. In 2017 with the Iowa Cubs, the Cubs Triple-A affiliate, he had provided a robust slash line of .342/.393/.558. At the beginning of 2018, Caratini had trouble putting any solid contact on the ball with the major-league Cubs. He wasn’t hitting, slugging, or getting on base. His defense remained below average, but he wasn’t with the team for his defense so that was never a major area of concern. Caratini’s role with the team was to spell Contreras and to provide offense to a level where there wasn’t a huge drop-off in production without Contreras in the lineup. That simply was not happening, and as May came to a close the Cubs sent Caratini back to Iowa.
The Chris Gimenez era was short-lived, though, as he too was an offensive black hole for the Cubs. In 12 games he sported a TAv of .184, slugged only .143, andprovided above average defense. But, with a Cubs offense that was struggling at the time, and all year long, they needed a bat, not a defense-first catcher. Thus, after a little over a month, Gimenez was designated for assignment and the 25-year-old Caratini found his way back to the big-league club. While in Iowa, Caratini had mashed to the tune of a TAv of .317 and a WARP of 1.2 in only 32 games. This gave the Cubs hope that Caratini would come back and contribute to the big league club with the type of offense they had planned for all along.
That didn’t happen, as Caratini’s second go-around with the club yielded much the same results as the first time. He struggled to make hard contact and to get the ball in the air. The power he so easily displayed in Iowa vanished in Chicago, and the switch-hitting catcher grounding out weakly to a middle infield position became the norm again. Outside of a brief two-week stretch near the end of the year where Caratini showed flashes of his minor league ways, his 2018 stint with the Cubs could at best be called middling. He ended the year with a WARP of -0.3. That’s below replacement level player bad, and for a former top-level prospect, that’s just not acceptable.
The question now: what do the Cubs do with Caratuini moving forward? His defense is, and more than likely always will be a liability. His adjusted FRAA in 2018 was a -1.1 with the Cubs and an even worse -1.5 in Iowa. There’s a lot of room for improvement there, but nothing in Caratini’s makeup suggests a guy who is all of a sudden going to improve on defense. For a player who would be nothing more than a backup with the Cubs, I’d argue that is exactly what the team does not need out of the catcher position. The backup to Willson Contreras needs to be good defensively, especially at framing, and Caratini’s -1.0 Framing Runs in 2018 just isn’t going to cut it for this team.
The key to Caratini remaining anywhere close to a viable option at catcher still lies in his ability to hit. He’s now had two seasons to show that he is a big-league caliber hitter, and thus far he has come up short. Maybe giving up on Caratini now would be giving up on him too early. But, the problem remains that he’s not going to get everyday reps on the same team as Willson Contreras. If Caratini is ever going to realize his offensive potential, the smart move would be for the Cubs to include him in some sort of package deal with another team.
I’m not one of those people yelling for the Cubs to trade a failed prospect. We all are smart enough to know that failed prospects usually find their way to getting released or are involved in very small trades at best. Caratini isn’t failed yet, nor is he already considered a Quad-A player. He’s still a prospect, and the Cubs can still push the idea that he’s a prospect that needs time to play to truly blossom. It’s an argument I’d buy, and I think a lot of Major League Baseball would as well. To be clear, the Cubs won’t get much back for Caratini, but he’s still talented enough that as a minor part of a package deal he could be useful.
I’m not sure that the Cubs have any intention of moving away from Caratini as the backup heading into 2019. Based on conversations I’ve had with some other people covering the Cubs the general impression is that they will stick with Caratini in the coming year. It’s not a move I understand or agree with, but a lot of people seem to think it is what this front office plans on doing. If that is the case, hopefully this is the year that Caratini figures out his swing in the majors. Because if he doesn’t, the Cubs are looking at another year where they wear out Contreras because they don’t have a viable backup option. I don’t think that’s a Cubs team that wins the World Series, and that’s why what the Cubs decide to do with Víctor Caratini may be one of their most important moves this offseason.
Lead photo courtesy Patrick Gorski—USA Today Sports