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Much of the hoopla and discussion surrounding the Cubs’ seven-player trade this week has focused on star pitcher Yu Darvish. That, of course, is understandable.
But the other player headed to San Diego, Victor Caratini, is worth remembering as well. First, let’s acknowledge the thanks Victor sent our way:
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Note “FANS” in caps. Thanks, Victor, for four solid seasons in a Cubs uniform. Victor lived in the neighborhood near Wrigley, too, and used to pass by us in the bleacher line on his way to the ballpark:
We’ll see where things wind up when the offseason is over – the bulk of free agency is still yet to happen! – but I wouldn’t be surprised if the on-paper Cubs look worse on April 1 than they do today. (I just hope that, if that happens, they’ve done they best they can in free agency to give themselves a puncher’s chance, and – more importantly – that the returns to the organization’s farm system were just too overwhelming not to feel good about the future.)
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• Speaking of which. The Cubs’ last obviously-selling trade until … Yu Darvish and the man who was acquired in that very trade. Victor Caratini was the bookends for an era:
• Jordan Bastian had some fun at Cubs.com going through the best single game offensive performances in Cubs history, and my guess is there would be some fightin’ right at the top. Statistically, Kris Bryant’s whopper against the Reds in June of 2016 (three homers and two doubles) is the best Cubs game of all-time. But I already know what you’re going to say. The actual best is this – HE DID IT AGAIN! HE DID IT AGAIN! – the Ryne Sandberg Game:
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It’s worth remembering how Caratini came to the Cubs. The 2014 Cubs were having another “rebuild” season, making a major deal in July in which they sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Athletics for Dan Straily, Billy McKinney and Addison Russell. Straily was later sent to the Astros for Dexter Fowler.
The Cubs didn’t make too many more deals that year, but at the July 31 trading deadline, they sent Emilio Bonifacio and James Russell to the Braves for Caratini.
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At the time, Caratini, who was the Braves’ second-round pick in 2013, was 20 years old and had played 158 professional games, none above Low-A. He was assigned to Kane County, then the Cubs’ affiliate in the Midwest League.
This was a great case of “sell high to a desperate contending team looking for anything to help them.” The Braves, a 96-win team in 2013, were 58-50 entering the games of July 31, 2014, but just 1½ games out of first place in the NL East. They’d made the postseason three of the previous four years and hoped to squeeze out another division title, or at least a wild-card spot. Bonifacio and Russell were complementary parts.
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The deal was a spectacular failure from the Atlanta viewpoint. Bonifacio, who had hit like a superstar in April for the Cubs (.337/.385/.406 in 110 PA, they should have traded him right then!), hit just .212/.273/.280 in 41 games (128 PA) for the Braves, producing -0.3 bWAR. Russell, who pitched competently for the Cubs in ‘14 (3.51 ERA, 1.200 WHIP, 0.5 bWAR), had a decent 22 games in Atlanta (2.22 ERA, 1.027 WHIP, 0.6 bWAR) — but the Braves released him at the end of the following year’s spring training and he wound up right back in the Cubs bullpen in 2015, though he didn’t pitch very well (5.97 ERA, -0.9 bWAR, left off the postseason roster).
Meanwhile, Caratini was steadily progressing through the Cubs system, making his debut in 2017 and becoming the regular backup to Willson Contreras in 2018. Overall in four Cubs seasons, Victor hit .250/.327/.372 (150-for-600) with 15 home runs in 240 games. Though that was only worth a total of 1.0 bWAR, Caratini was widely praised for his pitch framing skills, and of course, over the last year-plus he became Darvish’s personal catcher, likely the reason he was included in the deal.
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It’s instructive to look at what happened to the Braves after this deal. From July 31, 2014 through the end of the season the Braves went 21-32 and finished under .500. In 2015 they tanked completely, losing 95 games, and followed that up with a 96-loss year in 2016 and 90 losses in 2017. They quickly retooled and won 90 games in 2018 and have made the postseason three straight years.
Could the Cubs do that? Sure, though the fanbase likely wouldn’t tolerate three 90+ loss seasons. The Braves had a solid farm system producing players such as Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley, and they made shrewd trades, acquiring (among others) Dansby Swanson.
The Cubs don’t have players of the caliber of Acuña, Albies and Riley in their system. But perhaps trades like the one made this week will help the Cubs find players like that. It is, of course, way too early to know.
Anyway, the Cubs got a good backup catcher for four years for the price of two guys who didn’t do much in the big leagues after the deal, though, suprisingly, Bonifacio hung around for several more years, even surfacing in the majors for three games in 2020 with the Nationals.
Among the pleasant memories we have of Victor Caratini is the outstanding defensive play he made while pitching the ninth inning of a blowout loss to the Mets June 22, 2019.