Since the Cubs were eliminated from the playoffs, we’ve already looked in this space at some of their most pressing needs this offseason. This article begins a new series, featuring a deep dive on each positional group. We’ll start with catchers here and go around the field before ending with starting pitching and relief pitching in mid-December. Got it? Great, let’s get started.
If you read my writing on a regular basis, you know that I am a charter member of the Willson Contreras Fan Club. I still believe that Contreras doesn’t get as much respect as he deserves for being one of the best all-around catchers in baseball. How does Contreras compare to some of the game’s other elite catchers? Despite missing a month with a hamstring injury, the Venezuelan native put up more fWAR (3.2) than Yasmani Grandal (2.5), Salvador Perez (2.1), and Yadier Molina (2.1) did in full seasons of work. Contreras played in just 117 games and still finished fifth among all catchers in fWAR.
The 25-year-old improved in nearly every conceivable way from his rookie year in 2016 to his sophomore season. His OPS improved from an already very good .845 to .855, thanks to both an increase in walks and a decrease in strikeouts. Some analysts worried that Contreras’ offensive performance in 2016 was buoyed by a .339 BABIP that would surely regress this season. They were right, as his balls in play average dipped to .319, but it wasn’t because of regression. Contreras actually hit the ball hard over 35 percent of the time in 2017, besting his 2016 rate by over 3 percent. If anything, he got a little unlucky on balls in play this season.
If the young backstop has one flaw at the plate, it’s his propensity to hit the ball on the ground too often. His GB rate of 53.3 percent was relatively stable from his rookie campaign and one of the highest rates in the league. If he had qualified, that 53.3 percent would rank eighth in all of baseball. The players surrounding him on the list don’t necessarily constitute bad company to keep; Christian Yelich, DJ LeMahieu, and Eric Hosmer all have similar rates, for example. The difference is, those players all have a modicum of speed. Contreras, while he hustles all the time, does not. Therefore he won’t gain any infield hits from hitting the ball on the ground. Still, the issue isn’t too pressing since he was still able to club 21 homers and add another 21 doubles. Focusing on lifting the ball will be a priority in 2018.
Defensively, Contreras is among the league’s elite, as well. His arm has always been one of the best in the league–coupled with Javy Baez’s ridiculous tagging skills, it’s a wonder anyone ever tries to steal second–but his blocking improved in 2017, as well. He’s now one of the league’s premier defensive catchers, saving 12.8 runs for his team above the average player, per Fangraphs’ DEF metric. That figure ranks second among all catchers, again despite the fact Contreras played fewer than 120 games.
Alex Avila filled in admirably for Contreras in the catcher’s August absence. The lesser-recognized part of the Justin Wilson-Jeimer Candelario trade, Avila turned out to be far more useful for the Cubs. He even played a starring role in one of the season’s highlights.
Cubs’ fans shouldn’t get too attached to either Avila or third catcher Rene Rivera, however. Both are free agents and will likely be playing elsewhere next year. Although Rivera wasn’t on the team for long, fan will always remember his biggest swing with the team.
Unlike Avila and Rivera, Victor Caratini likely will be around in 2018. He’ll be Contreras’ primary back-up if the Cubs don’t make any significant moves this offseason. Caratini was tremendous at Triple-A in 2017, hitting .342 with a .953 OPS, a line that’s impressive even for the hitter-friendly confines of the Pacific Coast League.
The 24-year-old also compiled a 66-plate appearance sample in the big leagues, where he hit .254/.333/.356. The stat line isn’t exactly Johnny Bench-esque, but he didn’t strike out much (just 19.6 percent of PAs) and he hit the ball hard over 30 percent of the time he made contact. He profiles as an above-average hitter, which will play at catcher even though his defense is likely below-average at best. He’ll be a serviceable back-up and will allow Contreras to rest when needed.
Contreras doesn’t even hit arbitration until 2020 and won’t be a free agent until 2023, making him almost criminally underpaid. He likely hasn’t hit his peak yet and could be a 30-homer hitter with plus defense when he gets there. That represents a best-case scenario of course, but that type of player is a superstar. Even better, Contreras’ defense makes him a high-floor player; he’s valuable even when he’s not hitting.
In sum, with Contreras reaching his prime and Caratini providing capable depth, the Cubs are very well-positioned at catcher for the foreseeable future.