The Chicago Cubs didn’t extend any of their positional core, and then traded three of them two weeks ago. We know it. We felt it. I won’t belabor it. Not today anyway.
Instead, the question of the day focuses on one member of the positional core who is still around for one more year. If the Cubs don’t trade him sooner, that is.
It’s starting catcher Willson Contreras, who is 29, and is one of the most complete catchers in the game. While the bat has not been quite what you’d want the last couple years (.235/.343/.419, 109 wRC+), so much has been asked of Contreras, and his offense has been plenty strong for a quality defensive catcher who plays almost every dang day. You always worry about a catcher abruptly breaking down in his 30s, but there’s little reason not to want the Cubs to marry up with Contreras for at least a few more years if a deal can be done.
That’s especially true if the Cubs aren’t planning to do a full-scale, multi-year rebuilding process:
The Cubs can keep saying this isn’t a rebuild and it won’t be 2012 all over again at Wrigley Field. Or they can prove it by extending Willson Contreras and building around their All-Star catcher. https://t.co/Xd89EdeZ3n
— Patrick Mooney (@PJ_Mooney) August 7, 2021
I won’t be naive and tell you there’s no chance the Cubs trade Contreras this offseason. If they feel there’s significant value to be had, and if extension talks prove fruitless, then it’s basically just a version of the conversation that happened in July with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javy Báez.
But *if* that were to happen, then Mooney is very much correct that it’s pretty hard for the Cubs to sell the idea they aren’t fully rebuilding, because it will be all the more difficult to actually compete in 2022 without Contreras. Impossible? I won’t say that, because we don’t know what else they might do. But you can’t easily replace Contreras.
It would be much more desirable, I would think, to get the Cubs and Contreras on board with an extension that properly balances his value to the team against the risk that his market won’t be as robust as JT Realmuto’s was last winter. At that time, Realmuto was a year younger than Contreras will be next year, may have been coming off a better season, and was a free agent. Realmuto got five years and $115.5M to take him through his age 34 season. Maybe the Cubs and Contreras could come to terms on a deal that approached the Realmuto AAV over a shorter term? Or approached the Realmuto guarantee over a longer term? I think there will have to be some play there, because as we sit here today, I don’t think a Realmuto deal in free agency is an appropriate comp for Contreras a year out from free agency. Willson Contreras should do well on an extension, yes, but I’m hoping for both sides that Realmuto’s deal doesn’t become a hard baseline, because that’ll mean that no deal gets done.
Whatever the framework, I just really like the idea of Contreras being a guy (the guy? together with Kyle Hendricks?) who is in place as the team transitions. He necessarily has critical roles on both the positional side and the pitching side, and I just love his attitude. I could see it playing well on a team that is trying to get back to winning over a multi-year period.
Who knows? Maybe the conversation would’ve looked fundamentally different if top catching prospect Miguel Amaya had broken out this year. As it stands, Amaya had a decent start to the minor league season (still waiting on the power to emerge), but then succumbed to a forearm injury that has had him out for the last two months. I don’t know that there’s optimism he’ll return this year. If Amaya, who is already on the 40-man roster, were looking like a clear big league starter – if that were even possible for him to prove at Double-A this year – maybe you are more cautious in approaching Contreras. But it’s all academic now, because there is no reason to count on Amaya definitely being the Cubs’ starting catcher in 2023 (much less 2022 if you started talking about a Contreras trade). You hope he’s a big leaguer by then. A great one. But you cannot create an organizational strategy around that idea.
Besides: would it really be a bad thing for Amaya to get to incorporate into the big league mix in a couple years in a back-up role behind Contreras? Might that not actually be a perfect way to ease the load on Contreras while he also helps Amaya transition to, and develop in, the big leagues?
As a practical matter, I don’t know that I see extension talks with Contreras happening until around arbitration time, as is usually the case with players in those years of team control. You have to negotiate anyway, so why not talk about a bigger deal if you can? Moreover, with the CBA expiring on December 1, I just don’t see major long-term commitments from many teams – whether in free agency or on extensions – until that’s settled. Hopefully it can be done by sometime in January, and then the Cubs and Contreras could proceed to have talks on a relatively normal schedule.
So that’s why I’m just teeing it up for now. It’s going to be background to all the trade rumors that will inevitably pop up, and it’s also a critical component of whatever the Cubs plan to do in 2022. Because even without a trade or an extension, Contreras still matters a great deal to the Cubs in 2022. Also, for the record: trading a starting catcher at the deadline for full value is a lot harder than other positions because of the time to incorporated with a pitching staff and maximize value down the stretch. So maybe lean hard in one direction or the other this offseason?