The Cubs have a decision to make regarding Willson Contreras, who’s heading into his final season of club control. Contreras is projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz for an arbitration salary in the $8.7MM range this year. Amidst an organizational reboot, the Chicago front office finds themselves in something of an awkward spot with their longtime catcher.
Chicago signed Yan Gomes, perhaps the best catcher in this year’s free agent class, to a two-year contract in November. That seemed to position Contreras as one of the likeliest trade candidates around the league on-paper, but there’s been no real indication the Cubs have shopped him. That could indicate they’re not looking to move on from Contreras, although they’ve also not yet broached the topic of extending the relationship.
Speaking with reporters (including Sahadev Sharma of the Athletic) yesterday, the 29-year-old backstop said the organization and his reps at Octagon haven’t discussed a potential long-term deal. “No, there haven’t been any talks. I’m good with it” he said. “They know what they’re doing, they know what’s best for the team. I’m here because I love my team. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen.” Contreras went on to indicate he’d be willing to have those discussions. “I’m always open. You know me, I’m not focused on that. I’m focused on having a good year, having fun with my team and trying to win.”
The Cubs stripped down a good portion of the 2016 World Series winning club at last summer’s trade deadline, moving Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez. Those departures kicked off what one might consider a new era of Cubs baseball, but president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer maintained there were no plans for a full rebuild. Hoyer, GM Carter Hawkins and the rest of the front office have largely backed up those assertions this winter. In addition to Gomes, they also signed Marcus Stroman to a three-year deal, added Andrelton Simmons on a one-year pact and claimed Wade Miley off waivers. They don’t seem done, as Hoyer told reporters (including Jesse Rogers of ESPN) this morning they’re still on the hunt for pitching help.
Even in the event the Cubs are trying to hang around the periphery of contention this season, there’s a case to be made for moving Contreras. Gomes is a capable #1 catcher in his own right; getting both players regular reps probably involves Contreras seeing a lot of time at designated hitter. He’s a good hitter, particularly in comparison to his peers at catcher, but he’s not the kind of elite bat for whom teams have been inclined to set aside the DH role.
Contreras has been an above-average hitter by measure of wRC+ in each of his six career seasons. Going back to the start of 2020, he owns a .239/.345/.429 line, numbers that check in nine percentage points above the league average. That’s markedly better than the .230/.307/.392 figure put up by catchers around the league, but it’s not elite middle-of-the-order output overall. Defensively, Contreras has typically been adept at throwing out attempted base-stealers, although he struggled in that regard last season. His pitch framing metrics, per Statcast, have checked in right around the league average over the past two years after he struggled mightily in that regard early in his career.
All told, the Cubs have to decide whether they view Contreras as a potential long-term building block. Recent free agent pickups notwithstanding, they’ve pared back payroll over the past twelve months. With only around $72MM in guaranteed commitments on the books in 2023 (per Jason Martinez of Roster Resource), the flexibility should be there for Chicago if they want to make a run at an extension.
Yet if the Gomes signing signaled a changing of the guard behind the plate on the North Side, Contreras could find himself switching uniforms over the coming weeks. If he doesn’t sign an extension, he’d be on track to hit free agency as one of next winter’s top available catchers — part of a group that could also include Gary Sánchez, Mike Zunino, Christian Vázquez and Max Stassi.