With all the talk surrounding the Chicago Cubs’ inactivity this winter with respect to free agent signings, the most important position in need of addressing may be a backup catcher.
By the conclusion of the 2018 season, Willson Contreras had caught 1,109.2 innings for the Cubs, the most in the major leagues.
Despite his reliability as a backstop, Contreras was undoubtedly zapped in the second half of the season.
After making the National League All-Star team as the starting catcher and hitting .279 with a .818 OPS at the break, Contreras struggled mightily to maintain his success.
He hit .200 in the second half, including a porous .159 in August, and he hardly hit the ball out of the infield. After hitting seven home runs in the first half, Contreras hit just three the rest of the way.
Not only was it a disappointing season for Contreras, but very concerning as well. He seemed to be next up in the order of young Cubs stars after a breakout 2017 season where he hit 21 home runs and looked like arguably the best catcher in the league.
And while the early returns from 2018 were positive, Contreras simply looked burned out. His ISO power plummeted from .223 in 2017 to just .141 last season.
But without either of those two in a Cubs uniform last season, and given Victor Caratini‘s big-league struggles and defensive deficiencies, the catching duties were placed almost entirely on Contreras’ shoulders. And as a result, he struggled.
Catcher is and always has been a premium position in the big leagues. Finding a young backstop with immense offensive potential is incredibly rare, which is why so many teams have inquired about Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto.
There is no question that the Cubs are extremely fortunate to possess a commodity like Contreras, but they must take the necessary precautions if they do not want to ruin his prime.
By nature, the position has always been one of fragility. This is why the likes of Joe Mauer and Buster Posey made positional switches to first base later in their careers, and why the Cardinals continue to give more rest days to Yadier Molina despite the veteran still playing at an All-Star level.
Contreras has already been bit by the bug, succumbing to a hamstring injury in 2017 after trying to beat out a ground ball in San Francisco. He would miss nearly a month of action in the process.
Now heading into his age-27 season, it is imperative that the Cubs find a trustworthy filler behind the dish when Contreras needs a breather. Sending him out day after day to catch the highest number of innings is not sustainable if Chicago hopes to maximize his potential.
So if Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are practicing what they preach with respect to their belief in the current roster, they would do well to learn from the past and find a suitable backup catcher.
Otherwise, they run the risk of missing out on Contreras’ prime.