The Cubs made a trade with the Kansas City Royals Monday night for veteran catcher Martin Maldonado. Based on Twitter reactions this move caught a few people by surprise, but maybe it shouldn’t have. A veteran backup catcher has been on my wish list since the offseason and that need was highlighted earlier this season when Victor Caratini missed a few weeks with a broken hand.
Let’s take a closer look at the numbers and motivations behind the deal.
What did the Cubs give up?
Mike Montgomery was on the mound for the final out of the 2016 World Series. He is the guy who threw the pitch that ended a 108-year championship drought for the Cubs. Cubs fans will always appreciate him for that, but there was a lot more to Montgomery’s contributions to the Cubs.
In mid-2017 the Cubs were dealing with an injured Kyle Hendricks and Mike Montgomery proved his versatility and value to the Cubs. At the time I wrote:
The most important pitch of last year’s season wasn’t thrown by Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta or Aroldis Chapman. It was thrown by Mike Montgomery, a late July acquisition that the Cubs got from the Mariners for everyone’s favorite trade target last year: Daniel Vogelbach.
Like most of the trades that get done in a given year, it was overshadowed by bigger deals: Mark Melancon to the Nationals, Andrew Miller to the Indians, and Chapman to the Cubs. I’m not here to argue that the Montgomery acquisition was bigger than any of those deals, but I am here to suggest that maybe it was more important, or at least as important. So I thought it might be worth taking a look at Mike Montgomery, his journey, what the Cubs gave up to get him and what he might mean to this team.
I still think that’s right. MiMo provided a lot of value to the Cubs during his time in Chicago. He also served a crucial roll as a long innings middle reliever who could pull off a series of starts more than adequately. The Cubs hardly flinched when they had injuries to their pitching staff in 2017 and Montgomery is a big reason why.
That said, the first-round pedigree and upside haven’t been on display in 2019 and with the Cubs in a dogfight in the toughest division in baseball, Montgomery had really lost his place as a difference maker on this team. He was no longer pitching well enough to earn spot starts, Joe Maddon didn’t seem to trust him in the long man role he’d covered so admirably (nor did he need to with Tyler Chatwood’s emergence in the bullpen) and he’s not a typical lefty specialist. You can see Montgomery’s splits by year below:
Mike Montgomery 2016-2019
What did the Cubs get?
Martin Maldonado is a defense-first veteran catcher. He’s not here for his bat. That will probably alarm some people who have expressed a lot of grief at the days where the bottom of the lineup has looked like a black hole. I will be the first to admit that if Joe decides to run Daniel Descalso, Albert Almora Jr. and Maldonado out there in the same day things look pretty bad for the Cubs. He’s slashing a very predictable .227/.291/.366 with a wRC+ of 73 in 2019. Fortunately, that’s not why he’s here.
Maldonado made it into my preseason guide to catchers with the following note, and it’s still why I find him intriguing:
Martin Maldonado is not a great hitter, his career slash line is .220/.289/.350 but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one watching his defense and the way he handled the Astros elite pitching staff in the postseason. He’s also relatively young in this class at 31.
Theo Epstein made these comments about the acquisition last night, as published in The Athletic:
“He’s an established catcher in this league who does a lot of great things behind the plate,” Epstein said. “He can really receive, he can really throw. He’s caught playoff games, he’s handled some of the best pitchers in the game. He’s a favorite for pitchers to throw to. He’s very calm back there, very prepared. Calls a great game. Really soft hands. Lot of experience, lot of savvy and someone who we think can step in and share the job with Vic (Caratini) and get up to speed really quickly in what we hope is a brief absence from Willson.”
I can already hear a few people talking about my favorite F-word: framing, but that’s also not why he’s here. At least not for his recent record. Scott Lindholm posted the following on Twitter to give you an idea of where Maldonado’s framing sits relative to Caratini and Contreras:
#Cubs How new Cubs acquisition Martin Maldonado has framed this year. Pay attention to the axes and read the caption. pic.twitter.com/KCBD0lhFDU— Scott Lindholm (@ScottLindholm) July 16, 2019
In other words: While he’s had some seasons that have been elite as a framer, he’s not really that guy right now and this probably doesn’t signal a dramatic shift from the Cubs on how they are approaching that part of the game. This move appears to be more about a veteran presence on the team and a backup plan if Willson’s injury is more serious than it appears.
This move also creates a lot more depth in the Cubs system at catcher. Victor Caratini has had an outstanding start to 2019, and if the Cubs were to trade him his trade value will never be higher. The Cubs backup catcher is slashing: .289/.369/.485 with a wRC+ of 123 across 38 games. He’s been the 22nd most valuable backstop in all of MLB by fWAR despite being in a backup role. As a result there are rumors that quite a few teams have expressed interest in Caratini, again from the Athletic:
Beyond that, one has to wonder whether Caratini now becomes a potential trade piece for the Cubs. His ability to hit from both sides of the plate and also play some first base is something the Cubs value. The young catcher has posted a 123 wRC+ on the year and has greatly improved defensively and as a game-caller, something everyone in the organization took note of in the spring. But that could also be a valuable piece to teams looking for a young backstop to plug in immediately. While his value on the open market is unclear, it can’t be ruled out as the Cubs attempt to fill various holes on this roster.
It’s not a foregone conclusion that the Cubs will trade Caratini, but with a small lead in a very tough division this move gives them depth and options at a critical position. I will always be grateful for Mike Montgomery’s spot on the greatest Cubs team of my lifetime, but he had more value as a trade chip in 2019. Here’s hoping a change of scenery does him well, and welcome to the Cubs, Martin Maldonado.