Although there’s a little more nuance to it, we can fairly say that the Trade Deadline did not go well for Willson Contreras’s pocket.
Although Contreras may have been very happy to stay with the only team he’s ever known – and the fans may have been happy about it, too – there’s not really an argument that how things shook out is actually going to help him in free agency. For one thing, the lack of a significant trade offer suggests something about the market’s perception of Contreras’s value as a catcher. For another thing, having not been traded, Contreras is now eligible for a Qualifying Offer from the Cubs, which, if rejected, would tie him to draft pick compensation in free agency, almost automatically lowering his signing price.
Combine those two things, and the market for Contreras, 30, is probably going to be a lot dicier than he would’ve hoped a year ago, or than we would’ve thought a year ago.
To that end, Buster Olney writes about Contreras’s situation, and how the industry does not see this as a simple “make a Qualifying Offer, he rejects it, Cubs get a draft pick” situation:
Among other things, the ESPN article has more discussion of how Contreras is perceived as a catcher around the league, including this:
There are evaluators who don’t believe Contreras has connected as well with his pitchers as someone like the Astros’ Martin Maldonado, or even Orioles rookie Adley Rutschman. Contreras has a great bat and a powerful throwing arm, but scouts’ grades on his handling of pitchers are not good.
“It’s not about his effort, and it’s not that he doesn’t care,” said one evaluator. “It’s just not something he does well.”
Contreras has one of the best bats behind the plate in baseball, but heading into his age 31 season, it does concern me that we’re getting these signals – these kinds of comments, and also the way the trade deadline played out – that Contreras doesn’t do the receiving/game-planning/working-with-pitchers stuff well enough to be viewed as a dead-bang obvious star starting catcher for any team.
And again, if that’s a real perception out there, it’s going to be a real issue for his market.
It is not impossible to imagine a scenario where (1) the Cubs decide they value Contreras, at a minimum, on a one-year, $19-ish million deal (the anticipated value of a Qualifying Offer), and (2) Contreras’s agent surveys the landscape and determines there is not going to be a clearly better offer out there *when attached to draft pick compensation.* If that were to happen, as much as it would suck for Contreras, he would be advised to accept the Qualifying Offer.
The Cubs, in that case, do not get an extra draft pick, but they do get Contreras back on a reasonable one-year deal. Even in a world where the Cubs prefer to give more of the catching starts to Yan Gomes and P.J. Higgins, it’s not like Contreras can’t still be quite valuable in a reduced catching role, and then getting a majority of his at bats between DH and 1B, for example. It might not be the Cubs’ preferred or ideal set-up, but there aren’t too many bad one-year contracts like that.
Would it really come to that?
There’s an argument that, even as a Designated Hitter, Contreras is worth way more than 1/$19M, even with the draft pick compensation attached. When I think about it that way, I have trouble seeing him completely unable to find a, say, three or four-year deal out there at a solid AAV.
Of course, that’s where you start to wonder about whether there’s a sweet spot for an extension, where the Cubs could sign Contreras for less than “market” price (because of his risk of draft pick compensation being attached), and Contreras could get more from the Cubs than he would realistically get elsewhere. I don’t want to get my hopes up, but there are some inefficiencies being created by the Qualifying Offer system here.
For now, in either case, it would be helpful for Willson Contreras to return fully healthy soon from his ankle injury, and then finish the season on a strong note. Hopefully he could be back as soon as tomorrow.