Victor Caratini was acquired to bolster the San Diego Padres’ catcher depth over the offseason. What did he do well last year, and where can he improve?
Since the trade deadline last year, Padres general manager A.J. Preller has made major changes to the team’s makeup, including the catcher corps. He traded Austin Hedges to the Cleveland Indians and Francisco Mejia to the Tampa Bay Rays. He also dealt Zach Davies and four prospects to the Chicago Cubs for starting pitcher Yu Darvish and catcher Victor Caratini. Ironically, former Padres general manager, Jed Hoyer, made the deal, his first after taking over as president of baseball operations from Theo Epstein, also a San Diego alum.
The 27-year-old Caratini, a native of Puerto Rico, will earn between $1.2 and $1.6 million this year and will presumably serve as Darvish’s “personal catcher” just as he did in the Windy City. Drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 2013 in the second round, Caratini moved on to the Cubs’ system the following year. Since his big league debut in 2017, Caratini has played backup behind Willson Contreras. So far, his main value lies in his ability to receive Darvish’s 11 different pitches.
As Major League Baseball’s schedule ramps up from 60 games to 162 games, the Padres will have several tough choices to make, including the division of playing time behind the dish. After being acquired from the Seattle Mariners in August last year, Austin Nola took over the catching main duties. How time will be shared among Nola, Caratini, and Padres’ product Luis Campusano will undoubtedly play out during the season.
The ability to receive the vast array of pitches in Darvish’s arsenal cannot be underestimated. Of his 11 pitches, his primary seven include a cutter, slider, four-seam fastball, sinker, knuckle-curve, split-finger fastball, and curve in that order. And the 34-year-old Darvish continues to tinker, further challenging his catcher.
The Padres will pay Darvish $59 million over the next three seasons. Not acquiring his favorite backstop would have frankly been foolhardy. Although Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw adjusted to life without his favorite catcher, A.J. Ellis, he likened the change to having a family member move far away.
In 2020, Caratini batted .241/.333/.326/.661 with 1 HR and16 RBI, a tad lower than his career line of .250/.327/.372/.699. Although not earthshaking stats at the plate, a similar performance this year for the Padres would be a definite upgrade over Hedges .158/.258/.333 and Mejia .077/.143/.754 last year.
Last season, Statcast ranked Caratini in the 98th percentile in pitch framing. According to Baseball-Reference, he recorded three Rtot (total zone fielding runs above average) during his time in Chicago from 2017 to 2020.
He also has some experience at first base (54 games) and as a designated hitter (18 games), adding to the Padres’ dramatically improved versatility. Caratini throws right but can hit from both sides of the plate.
As the Padres ramp up from 60 to 162 games, the current situation at catcher carries a number of risks. Nola, a career minor leaguer until last year, may regress. Furthermore, he cannot be expected to carry a burden equivalent to last year in a regular season.
In 2019 Darvish started a total of 31 games. The Padres will have to decide whether/how much to expand Caratini’s duties to include other pitchers on the staff. According to Baseball-Reference, Caratini’s career WAR stands at 0.9, OPS + at 85, with last years’ numbers lower at -0.2 WAR, 80 OPS+.
In two seasons (2017 and 2019), Hedges racked up 21 DRS (Fangraphs) compared to Caratini’s two DRS total at catcher. Last year with Seattle and the Padres, Nola had -1 DRS. The Padres won’t miss Hedges’ bat, but none of the current crop of catchers can come close to his defensive prowess.
And what about Campusano, who has a grand total of four plate appearances at the big league level? In October last year, Georgia charged Campusano with felony marijuana possession. Pulled over with 79 grams of weed, Campusano could have spent up to 10 years in prison. The fact that he’s showed up in camp indicates that he dodged that bullet, but he also has battled recent injuries. Also, he would definitely benefit from more seasoning in the minor leagues, but that decision will be made later this month.
The Padres have a daunting number of decisions to make before the team takes the field on April 1 at home against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Assigning catching duties will be especially tricky, thanks in part to the relative inexperience of the three catchers on the roster at this time. While Caratini will undoubtedly act as a personal catcher for Darvish, his role otherwise has yet to be determined.