After Willson Contreras turned in a down year offensively, the Chicago Cubs can no longer afford to bank on Victor Caratini as the team’s full-time backup.
It’s abundantly clear the 2018 season took its toll on Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras. A feel-good first half resulted in his first-ever All-Star appearance, seemingly headed toward another strong campaign.
The Cubs never made a big deal out of only having one catcher behind Contreras in Victor Caratini, and, for the first half, it didn’t matter because the former played so well. However, when the second half came around, we started to see how important having a solid backup catcher really is. The second half showed us why the Cubs need to place a higher importance on adding a strong backup to Contreras this offseason.
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To start, Caratini rarely played and when he did, he wasn’t good. He had 31 starts in the 2018 season, and only finished 24 of those games. He had a -0.1 WAR, a .232 batting average, and caught 10 of 26 (27 percent) would-be base stealers. Those are pretty rough numbers for someone that should be a great complement to a young star.
Sure, Contreras is never going to say he needs rest or anything like that because of his fierce competitive spirit. But as a catcher, sitting like you do behind the plate catching (and throwing) well over 100 pitches a game, lots of playing time adds up. For your backup to complete 14 percent of games, fatigue for sure has to set in.
Fatigue playing a role in Contreras’ woes?
Contreras’ numbers were way down this season compared to 2016 and 2017, seasons where he had a fleet of help to complement him. In 2016, we saw Contreras burst onto the scene, homering on the first pitch he ever saw in the big leagues. He hit .282 with 12 homers and an OPS of .845.
He had veterans David Ross and Miguel Montero to complement him behind the plate, two monstrous pieces the Cubs would never have won the World Series without. In 2017, although without Ross and then Montero after his DFA, he still had a decent group behind him.
Victor Caratini, Rene Rivera and Alex Avila (who proved to be a solid addition at the trade deadline), helped kept Contreras fresh. He started in 91 games, hit .276 with 21 homers and an OPS of .855. In both 2016 and 2017, Contreras stayed fresh and produced the way he should.
However, in 2018, the Cubs decided to ride with only Caratini behind Contreras and this was a mistake. The Chicago backstop started in 123 games, the most among all MLB catchers. He ended the season with career-lows at the plate, a .249 average with 10 home runs and an OPS of .730.
Plenty of options available this offseason
It’s no coincidence that Willson played his best baseball when he had veteran help to complement him. When that went away in 2018, Willson let the taxing 163-game season get to him, and we saw a player who wasn’t himself. When your backup has a negative WAR along with a worse percentage of throwing guys out in half the attempts, it doesn’t help.
The Cubs would be smart to add some help in the 2019 season if they want their All-Star backstop to return to form. Keeping Caratini on as a third-string wouldn’t be a bad idea, but the Cubs need a veteran in the mix. With plenty of options this offseason in the catching department, the ball is in their court.