The rumors are really about to start heating up, and they are going to make Cubs fans mighty uncomfortable at times.
For example …
Multiple teams in search of catching help believe Cubs catcher Willson Contreras will be available this winter. The Cubs will get creative this winter, and with a deep catching free agent market, they could trade Contreras and begin retooling under new manager David Ross.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 8, 2019
Strictly speaking, there is not anything here that we either didn’t already know or surmise. The Cubs have been open about making significant changes, Contreras has a lot of value, and anything will be considered. We know all that.
But the fact that Passan made it is first note while looking ahead to the GM Meetings next week, it sure sounds like he’s heard a bit more chatter than the usual “Cubs are considering anything.” Indeed, it kinda sounds like there are teams out there already planning to see what’s up with respect to the Cubs and Contreras.
Contreras is arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason, and the Cubs have him under control for the next three years. He’s a core piece in a number of ways, and one of the few who is controllable past 2021. To lose him would be a blow to fans who’ve come to love Willy, but also to the composition of the roster if it wasn’t attended by other moves.
Theoretically, Cubs do have some catching talent available now (Victor Caratini) and coming in the years ahead (Miguel Amaya), so maybe it’s a spot where the Cubs could withstand losing a stud like Contreras – replacing him with someone on the free agent market, perhaps. Maybe the net loss in production in 2020, even before considering the return in trade, wouldn’t be too terribly steep?
But you have to know what you’re giving up, and it’s one of the best offensive catchers in the game, a fiery presence, and a guy who does everything well defensively except frame pitches.
Theo Epstein said that Willson Contreras' framing improved in the 2nd half.
It did in a BIG WAY.
Pitches at top border strike probability
First half = ~30%
Second half = ~70%
This improvement was/still is VITAL for Hottovy's game plan with Hendricks and Quintana (sinkers up). pic.twitter.com/lZaNdlH7La
— Brendan Miller (@CubsRelated) October 4, 2019
If Contreras is progressing toward average framing? Or could become even better? It’s a skill that frequently does improve rapidly, so it’s not at all implausible that Contreras could go from one of the worst framers in baseball to average or above average in just a calendar year.
Of course, the newfound framing success cuts both ways. On the one hand, you’re more inclined to want the Cubs to keep Contreras, hoping on the framing as pushing his contribution to the team’s performance into an entirely new tier. On the other hand, you could point to the framing improvements as a reason for *other* teams to pay top dollar, so to speak, in trade. It’s really the only thing potential trade partners could try to squeeze as leverage, and maybe it’s not even a huge problem anymore.
It’s hard to peg what a possible return for Contreras could be, given that the Cubs could seek out a couple quality prospects, or instead could be looking for a commensurate big league piece (a controlled young starting pitcher, for example). What we can say for sure is that Contreras is a very valuable player, who – with an extra year of control – is probably worth at least as much on the market as J.T. Realmuto was last year. Just two years of Realmuto netted the Marlins a young catcher in Jorge Alfaro coming off a 3+ WAR season, a top pitching prospect in Sixto Sanchez, another top 20 system prospect in Will Stewart, and some international bonus pool money.
Throw in the possibility that electronic strike zones could come in the next few years? Contreras’s value could be even higher.
Oof. I kinda hate thinking about this stuff with respect to Contreras, but if the Cubs are going to be open to anything, we’ll have to be open to these conversations as rumors pop up.