Victor Caratini

Cubs announce minor league player and pitcher of the year

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USA TODAY

Cubs announce minor league player and pitcher of the year

Wednesday, the Cubs announced Victor Caratini and Jen-Ho Tseng as the organization's minor league player and pitcher of the year, respectively.

Caratini turned 24 last month and boasted an insane .342/.393/.558 slash line (.951 OPS) in Triple-A Iowa this season, his first year at the upper level of the Cubs minor league system. 

The switch-hitting catcher also clubbed 10 homers and 27 doubles while driving in 61 runs and scoring 50 in 83 games. He has spent more than a month in Chicago with the big-league team, where he's appeared in 24 games and hit .250 with a .696 OPS.

Caratini was initially acquired from the Atlanta Braves at the 2014 trade deadline when the Cubs sent Emilio Bonifacio and James Russell to Atlanta.

Tseng, 22, is a right-handed pitcher who spent most of the year with Double-A Tennessee, but also made nine starts with Triple-A Iowa. All told, he went 13-4 with a 2.54 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 24 starts, striking out 122 batters in 145.1 innings.

The Taiwanese pitcher has been in the Cubs organization since 2014, when he made 17 starts and two relief appearances for the Class-A Kane County Cougars. He has a career 3.17 minor-league ERA.


 

After nearly quitting baseball, Dillon Maples is now the feel-good story of September

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Iowa Cubs

After nearly quitting baseball, Dillon Maples is now the feel-good story of September

A year ago, things were awfully bleak for Dillon Maples. 

The right-handed pitcher was putting the finishing touches on a 2016 campaign that saw him post a 4.22 ERA, including a 7.71 mark in nine games at Advanced Class-A ball, the highest level he had advanced to in the Cubs system.

It had been more than five years since the Cubs selected him in the 14th round of the MLB Draft out of Pinecrest High School in North Carolina and he was still unable to even reach Double-A, let alone the majors.

That's why he was thinking about quitting, wanting to hang up his spikes and be done with baseball.

But he stuck with it and Friday, the 25-year-old became the ultimate feel-good story in baseball with rosters expanding for September call-ups.

Maples was one of the Cubs' choices for reinforcements, joining Justin Grimm, Victor Caratini and infielder Mike Freeman as the extra four guys on the roster. Maples has now gone from the lower levels of the minor leagues to the majors in the span of just a few months. 

"It's been a crazy year, but I'm ready for this. ... It's a pretty crazy 180, but the way this year's progressed, I kinda expected to be here," Maples said before walking it back a bit. "I wouldn't say I expected to be here, but I was ready to be here if I was called on."

Maples has earned it; this isn't some charity call-up. He found his command and his confidence in 2017, sporting a 2.27 ERA while striking out 100 batters in 63.1 innings. He also attributes a lot of his success to working with Cubs mental skills coach Darnell McDonald and learning how to prepare mentally and physically for each day at the ballpark.

"First of all, the person always deserves the most credit," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "But I do think our player development staff really hanging in there with him [made a big difference]. He had his ups and downs, but his confidence was great this year and he really started trusting his breaking ball. He has a special ability to spin the ball — both curveball and slider — and just really trusting those pitches I think is the biggest difference.

"It's a really fun moment for us to see a guy like that — a high-profile guy that went through ups and downs and may have even hung 'em up. For him to be here today, those are the special moments you try to enjoy.

"I mean, we are competing every day, but you try to take a step back and realize that for someone like him to realize that dream after that much hard work, it's a great thing about our game. I don't like the September call-up stuff, but this is one aspect that I do think is really nice when a guy can make his debut and get his parents here and kinda realize a dream."

Maples' parents won't actually be in attendance this weekend at Wrigley Field, as they're out visiting his younger brother at the Air Force Academy. 

But they were able to revel in the joy of Maples' first trip to "The Show."

"[When I got the call,] I remember going up to the hotel room, calling my dad," Maples said. "That's the guy I called last year when I wanted to hang it up. I had lost passion, lost drive.

"I just remember calling him last year, so it was only appropriate that he'd be the first one I'd call. My mom was in the car, so she found out right away. Heard her scream. It's definitely been a crazy ride for all of us."

Joe Maddon met with the young right-hander before Friday's game and said he plans to bring Maples along slowly in low-leverage situations. 

But he also wanted Maples to understand he's actually ahead of the curve for some relievers, who typically don't make it to the big leagues until age 26 or 27. 

"I wanted him to understand not to change anything," Maddon said. "You've gotten here, you've done a lot of good stuff to get here, don't think you have to do anything differently by being here. 

"That's always the danger. Sometimes, guys want to do something different to get out major-league hitters. I don't want him to feel that way. Give him his opportunities when they present themselves."

In thick of tight division race, Cubs add catcher Rene Rivera: 'You can't have enough experience'

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USA TODAY

In thick of tight division race, Cubs add catcher Rene Rivera: 'You can't have enough experience'

If this was 2016, the Cubs might not have bothered to acquire Rene Rivera.

But this isn’t 2016.

The Cubs have a vastly different catching situation than they did a year ago. But even more importantly, they’ve been unable to build any sort of lead in a crowded National League Central race.

Rivera, claimed off waivers from the New York Mets on Saturday morning, almost surely won’t end up being the guy who fuels the Cubs’ pulling away from the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. But with Willson Contreras on the disabled list, Miguel Montero on the Toronto Blue Jays, Alex Avila not even a month into his Cubs tenure and Victor Caratini just 17 games into his big league career, adding an extra veteran presence behind the plate seems like a pretty good idea.

“It’s like you can’t have enough pitching. You can’t have enough experience, depth-wise, especially at that position,” manager Joe Maddon said Saturday. “So I though we were very fortunate to be able to do this right now. Theo (Epstein, team president) told me about the potential yesterday, obviously it happened.”

This time last season, the Cubs had a reliable 1-2 punch behind the plate with Montero and Contreras. And more notably they had a double-digit lead in the NL Central standings. There’s been an awful lot of change since, with Montero’s brutal honesty getting him shipped off to Canada and Contreras injuring his leg in San Francisco.

Fortunately for the Cubs, they invested some of their last remaining minor league capital in acquiring Avila. Avila won’t replicate the kind of offensive production that made Contreras the hottest hitter on the team, but he’s a very capable starting catcher during Contreras’ time on the shelf.

And while Caratini has been fine — in fact, he’s hitting .400 since Contreras went down and collected three hits in Friday’s win over the Blue Jays — the Cubs are no longer about getting guys experience in August and September. The stakes are much higher.

The Cubs might’ve been an unstoppable juggernaut during the 2016 regular season. This year, though, has been a much different story, and a playoff spot is hardly a certainty.

Rivera isn’t going to solve the problems that have made it so the Cubs are stuck fighting for the crown of a middle-of-the-road division. But he’ll bring veteran experience to a playoff race that could last all the way until the season’s final days.

Rivera has been playing big league ball since 2004 but has totaled just nine years of major league service since then, serving in backup roles and just twice appearing in more than 100 games in a season. The Cubs raved about his defensive ability Saturday — as well as the eight homers he hit in 54 games for the Mets this season.

“He’s very good. Saw him with different teams, we’ve all seen him. He’s got a great reputation,” Maddon said. “Nice fella. Very good defensive player, great reputation. And he's got some pop, too. He hit a couple home runs. So that veteran kind of presence, the depth that it provides is all good stuff.”

No announcement has been made about the active roster. Minor league pitcher Aaron Brooks was designated for assignment to make room for Rivera on the 40-man roster. But the general thinking is that Caratini will head back to Triple-A Iowa.

“He’s done really well,” Maddon said of Caratini. “The way he’s blocked pitches in the dirt has been spectacular. I’ve enjoyed watching his receiving and his blocking, too. The pitchers have been really happy with him. … He’s very aware of building relationships with his pitchers, which I like. And it seems as if the pitchers are into him, too.

“There’s a great future for him in this game.”

But right now, the Cubs need all the experience they can get.