While it would seem surprising to see the Cubs put young backstop Willson Contreras up for trade, Jeff Passan of ESPN.com reports (Twitter link) that it’s a possibility. “Multiple teams” around the game believe the Chicago organization will take offers for the 27-year-old, per the report.
Let’s stop here to make clear: the expectations of rival executives does not a trade make. But it’s notable nevertheless that such a potential outcome has sprung up at this earlier stage of the offseason; after all, teams have been talking already. The negotiating partners of Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein will want to know whether there’s any realistic possibility of landing Contreras, or whether instead they should simply look elsewhere.
There’s no denying the major value Contreras would have on the open market. He dealt with some leg injuries, but was excellent when healthy. Over 409 plate appearances, Contreras slashed .272/.355/.533 with 24 home runs. He’s a lifetime 117 wRC+ hitter who is perhaps on the upswing (or at least not in decline) with the bat.
Behind the plate? The tools all seem to be there. He has generally been quite successful at cutting down the running game and at blocking stray pitches. There’s an argument that Contreras has been on the upswing in the framing department; he ended the year ranked as a positive in that regard — at least by one tabulation. Framing metrics have varied.
MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian looked at this question recently, noting that there are multiple ways to look at the matter. It seems clear the team feels that Contreras isn’t a fully finished product, though in some respects that only makes him more intriguing.
Bastian quotes Epstein:
“We’ve won a lot of games with Willson Contreras behind the plate. We’ve had a lot of success pitching with Willson Contreras behind the plate. There are certainly areas he can continue to improve upon, but shame on us if we can’t continue his development at the big league level, because this is like the most tooled-out, athletic catcher who has a huge heart and cares and wants his pitcher to succeed as well.”
Contreras won’t turn 28 until next May. He’s projected to earn a relatively stout $4.5MM in his first trip through arbitration, but that’s a plenty manageable figure for a regular backstop. The three years of contract control remaining are quite enticing, all things considered.
All of those factors also make Contreras exceptionally valuable to the Cubs — a team that isn’t exactly in position to pack it in for a rebuild. True, they have Victor Caratini on hand to perhaps take a bigger piece of the action if paired with a veteran. But you’d think that new manager David Ross would be well-positioned to help Contreras reach his monster ceiling. And there’s a reason that clubs prize the few, rare catchers in the game that contribute both with the glove and with the bat on a near-everyday basis.
Teams are already considering just how much to pay the older but also excellent Yasmani Grandal in free agency. They may have a more affordable alternative in Contreras, though it’ll surely cost a small fortune in trade value. (Last year’s J.T. Realmuto swap provides some conceptual help, though he was a year closer to free agency at the time he was dealt.) Just what the Cubs would be looking for in return isn’t known, though it would presumably not be an entirely future-oriented bargain for the Chicago organization. It’ll certainly be interesting to see whether talks gain any traction and, if so, what direction they take.