In a little over 24 hours, Willson Contreras will (likely) decline his qualifying offer and become a free agent. That will leave the Chicago Cubs, who hope to contend next season, with arguably just two big-league-capable catchers in their entire system: Yan Gomes, a 35-year-old backstop who just posted a 73 wRC+ in 2022, and P.J. Higgins a younger, versatile catcher with minor league options remaining, though realistically not much more than a quality-organizational guy.
It just doesn’t get your blood pumping after watching guys like Willson Contreras, Miguel Montero, and David Ross manage the better half of the battery for eight straight seasons.
Catching WAR Leaderboard 2015-2022:
- Dodgers: 40.4 WAR
- Giants 28.6 WAR
- Yankees 26.5 WAR
- Brewers 25.2 WAR
- Blue Jays: 24.8 WAR
- Cubs: 24.8 WAR*
- Phillies: 22.1 WAR
- Braves: 20.7 WAR
- Houston: 19.5 WAR
- Mariners: 18.3 WAR
*Cubs catchers combined for a 101 wRC+ from 2015-2022, third best in MLB.
Indeed, even if the Cubs *love* Gomes’ work behind the plate (and I think they do), and even if they *love* Higgins’ versatility (ditto), they’re going to need to add a catcher from outside the organization. Ideally someone who would *at least* push Gomes to a 1-B role, and Higgins to Iowa (or the bench) as very valuable depth.
Fortunately, the free agent market isn’t entirely barren. I could see the Cubs having interest in someone like Christian Vázquez or Omar Narváez on the “top end,” or maybe the overlapping time in Cleveland of Cubs GM Carter Hawkins and Austin Hedges materializes into some interest (his bat is brutal, but everything else is clearly top-shelf).
I don’t know which way they’re leaning, but there really are many familiar names on the free agent market: Mike Zunino, Gary Sanchez, Tucker Barnhart, Curt Casali, Jason Castro, Sandy Leon, Robinson Chirinos, and Austin Romine. Maybe you could find someone you like enough defensively for a timeshare out of this group.
But the only problem is the offensive letdown.
While I’ve become increasingly on board with the importance of a high quality defensive and receiving catcher behind the plate, someone who really handles the pitching staff well (if only because the Cubs seem so certain of its importance), that doesn’t mean there isn’t a meaningful tradeoff happening. The Cubs offense was already not great last season and that was WITH Willson Contreras, their best hitter by a wide margin. Losing his bat is going to be a huge loss.
So where else can the Cubs turn for an addition? How about the trade market, where multiple high-quality options have emerged as eminently available?
For example, at 670 The Score, Bruce Levine reports that Athletics catcher Sean Murphy “will almost certain be traded this offseason.”
Murphy, 28, slashed .250/.332/.426 (122 wRC+) last season, he won a Gold Glove in 2021 and was a finalist this season. He’s also young and under control for three more seasons via arbitration. He’s going to cost a LOT to acquire – and the Cubs would have some very serious competition if he were moved – but he’s as good as they get.
For what it’s worth, Levine brought up Murphy in connection to the White Sox, who “have their eye on” him as an avenue for improvement this winter. If Murphy were to be moved, you can bet the Cardinals would become involved, as well. They have the need, the capital, and a clear history of trading for star players.
Murphy isn’t the only attractive option on the trade block. The Toronto Blue Jays also have a trio of exciting young catchers they’re expected to move this offseason …
- Alejandro Kirk: 23 years old, four years of control, 129 wRC+, 3.8 WAR, great defensive metrics
- Danny Jansen: 27 years old, two years of control, 140 wRC+, 2.6 WAR, not known for defense, but not a liability
- Gabriel Moreno: 22 years old, top-30 prospect coming into the season, slashed .315/.386/.420 (120 wRC+) at Triple-A and .319/.356/.377 (113 wRC+) at MLB this season with solid defense, athleticism, and an above-average arm behind the plate
… and those rumors just keep popping up.
Sure, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins gave his version of We totally don’t have to do this at the GM Meetings: “We’re in a position where we do not have to do that to make our team better. Their potential versatility – more on the Moreno side than with the other two – is a positive for us.” But the rumors are there.
And why? Well aside from the logic of dealing from extreme (and unique) big league catching depth, there could be a bit of a payroll crunch coming to Toronto.
The 2022 payroll ($175M) was a franchise record, ditto their $195M luxury tax payroll. But with an estimated $62 million(!) in arbitration salaries due next season, those numbers are already expected to balloon to $194M and $218M before they even add a single player this winter. That’s where the Cubs could maybe have an advantage.
Because while the Cardinals, Twins, Guardians, Brewers, Pirates and Padres may all be considered “better fits” in trade than the Cubs (who are mentioned speculatively), none of them could as easily take on significant salary to facilitate a deal. That might be the only way the Cubs could get something like this done.
Maybe we’ll dig in more deeply another day, but the bottom line for now is pretty simple: The Cubs have some enormous shoes to fill behind the plate. And if it’s not going to be a surprise reunion with Willson Contreras, they should really consider some of the top-shelf options on the trade market: Sean Murphy, Alejandro Kirk, Danny Jansen, Gabriel Moreno. They might all be more attractive than the rest of free agency.