Chicago Cubs

Cubs boast depth behind the plate

Contreras ready to lead pitching staff

Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras waits on the pitch during a spring training baseball game \adv\, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras waits on the pitch during a spring training baseball game \adv\, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

As famed catcher Yogi Berra might have said, the Cubs have “deep depth” behind the plate.

Start with Willson Contreras, who manager Joe Maddon won’t rule out as an MVP candidate.

“It’s not impossible,” Maddon said early in spring training. “He plays that position. Premier thrower in the league, top three in baseball, probably. Blocks. Really good at receiving. And if he didn’t get hurt last year, he drives in 100 points with a bunch of homers. He’s all of that.”

The Cubs are so deep that they will have the luxury of allowing prospect Victor Caratini to develop further at Triple-A Iowa while creating a spot for veteran Chris Gimenez, who is in camp as a non-roster invitee. The Cubs like Gimenez’s veteran status and his experience catching Yu Darvish, the Cubs’ big free-agent prize of the offseason.

But it all starts with Contreras, the 25-year-old dynamo who came up in 2016, homered on the first big-league pitch he saw and was off and running.

Contreras’ calling card throughout his career has been his hitting.

In 428 plate appearances last year, Contreras put up a line of .276/.356/.499 with 21 homers and 74 RBIs. That contributed to a wins above replacement (WAR) of 3.2 for Contreras, who was on the disabled list from Aug. 10 to Sept. 10 with a strained right hamstring. The only two catchers with a higher WAR were the Giants’ Buster Posey with 4.3, and the Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto with 3.6.

Confidence never has been a problem for Contreras. He always has had it in abundance.

“He’s so uber confident,” Maddon said. “He’s been that way from the beginning. Our conversations are always good. He knows how I feel about him, how we all feel about him. I can’t tell you I’ve noticed anything different, that he knows, ‘I’m the guy here, I’m going to catch and these are my pitchers.’ So there’s not any kind of doubt with him right now.”

Contreras said he can keep that confidence while maturing at the same time.

“I have to mature, first as a person and then as a player,” he said. “Two years ago, I came into my first spring training as an invited player, and now I’m kind of the leader of the pitching staff. It’s good. I’m just trying to keep learning every day and help them to be the best.

“I think experience plays a huge [part]. Once you have two or three more years in the big leagues, your emotions come in a little bit lower than the year before.”

Caratini, 24, got into 31 games for the Cubs last season. He was named the organization’s minor league player of the year for his line of .342/.393/.558 with 10 homers and 61 RBIs in 83 games at Triple-A Iowa.

In 469 minor league games, Caratini has a line of .289/.369/.356. Those numbers are similar to the .283/.356/.419 line Contreras put up in 517 games in the minors.

The Cubs like veteran backup catchers, as evidenced by how much they valued David Ross in 2015 and 2016. Gimenez has 366 games of major league experience with Cleveland, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Texas and Minnesota.

Taylor Davis made his major league debut last year after parts of seven seasons in the Cubs’ minor league system. He’s in camp again as a non-roster invitee.

For the first time since he has been a part of major league spring training, Kyle Schwarber is not taking reps with the catchers as he concentrates on playing left field. However, Schwarber would be the emergency catcher if something were to happen in a game to make that necessary.

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