With the budget already hovering around the lowest threshold of the luxury tax (~$208M), the Chicago Cubs offseason seems destined to be an annoyingly long conversation about financial limitations and trades. Kris Bryant, who’s projected to make $18M this season and as much as $26-$28M next (if he loses his grievance), is the name most often bandied about the rumor mill, precisely because of those potential savings.
Indeed, Jesse Rogers re-kindled the Bryant-Braves speculation earlier this morning, and we took a look at Bryant’s broader market, as the Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson suitors begin to crystalize.
But, as we know, Bryant is not alone in this respect. Willson Contreras has been mentioned at least as much as Bryant, in part because of his potential internal replacements in the near (Victor Caratini) and long-term (Miguel Amaya), but also because of a desire to diversify the offense and improve the team’s framing behind the plate. Contreras, arbitration eligible for just the first time this winter, is significantly cheaper than Bryant, and comes with an additional year of team control (three total remaining), and that all speaks to the potentially impressive return he could net in a deal.
Before today, the Colorado Rockies appeared to be the team most interested in adding an impactful catcher this winter – Omar Narvaez (Brewers), Travis d’Arnaud (Braves), and Yasmani Grandal (White Sox) have already made three other catching-hungry teams full – but the Tampa Bay Rays have been mentioned, as well. Unfortunately, a quick read between the lines would reveal that the Rockies may have already rebuffed the Cubs early advances and the Rays, having re-signed semi-back-up catcher Mike Zunino, aren’t quite ready to commit to a big addition behind the plate. So … who’s left?
Well, the latest seemed to indicate that the Reds and Yankees could be involved, but neither team strikes me as particularly likely – the former is in the NL Central and the latter already has Gary Sanchez behind the plate. And while the Angels and Rangers have been mentioned as well, this former feels speculatively tied to Joe Maddon (which is not to say it isn’t legit, but … eh, we’ll see) and the latter just doesn’t have the pieces to get a deal done right now.
The Astros, then, appeared to be the most obvious team who’s reported interest in Willson Contreras was still active as of this morning, but perhaps there is one more team.
Per the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Padres seem to be in the market to add an impact catcher, too.
In short, the Padres, who’ve forcefully pried open their competitive window by pairing youngsters with aggressive free agent signings (Hosmer, Machado) and trades (Profar, Pham, Davies, Grisham), may have been priced out of the top free agents, as they stare at a maxed out payroll (~$140M) with more moves left to make. And to that end, the Union Tribune believes they could be looking to move some salary, specifically in the form of trading catcher Austin Hedges, who’s eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter.
And whether this was meant in concert with that effort or not, the Union Tribune reports that “the Padres are also seeking a starting catcher” very presumably on the trade market, based on the way it’s written.
And while Contreras is similarly-aged, controlled, and priced (he’s also first-time eligible this winter), he’s a fundamentally different type of catcher, with a lot more impact, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Because while Hedges may be one of the most valuable defensive catchers in the game, he also finished the 2019 season with a … 47 wRC+ (53% worse than the league average hitter) compared to Contreras’ 127 wRC+ (27% better than the league average hitter).
We can get way more into it if we wanted, but there’s not much more to it than that. The Padres need to make a splash to hold open the window they just created, but are significantly limited by their payroll. At the same time, they’re looking to (1) trade catcher Austin Hedges and (2) acquire a different starting catcher on the trade market. Willson Contreras is the only available, impactful catcher out there and he comes without much of a financial impact (indeed, he’d be close to cost *and* control-neutral for the Padres, if they were able to move Hedges).
This is all just something to keep on your radar.
There’s also the matter of Padres youngster Francisco Mejia, another bat-first catcher whom we discussed this weekend, but perhaps the Padres don’t see him as a catcher long-term? Anyway, here’s what Brett said about Mejia yesterday when a trade *idea* was floated by MLB.com to swap Contreras and Mejia:
I could certainly see the Padres as an attractive trade partner for the Cubs – plenty of quality young arms and high-level prospects to turn heads – and I could also see the Padres wanting to add Contreras’s fire power behind the plate. They are in that mode. What I can’t quite see is defensively-challenged catcher Francisco Mejia being the center piece of the return unless the Cubs were so enamored with the bat that they don’t really care where he winds up positionally (he played a little outfield in the Indians farm system). Obviously Mejia was an extremely highly regarded prospect in his Indians days, as an extreme-contact switch hitter with developing power. The issue is that, in the big leagues, his strikeout rate has been closer to (or slightly above) league average, and he doesn’t walk. So he’s a guy who has to post a huge BABIP to have success, and has to do it with meh speed. That’s a lot of pressure on his ability to hit a lot of line drives (it’s a similar profile, in that regard, to Victor Caratini, actually). As a good catcher, that’s a great bat. As a bad catcher or a corner outfielder, it’s gotta be a lot more than that.