Confirming what most rightly expected to be a foregone conclusion, Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said at today’s end-of-season press conference that the team will “definitely” make a qualifying offer to free-agent catcher Willson Contreras (Twitter link via Maddie Lee of the Chicago Sun-Times). That much was widely assumed from the moment the team surprisingly opted against trading Contreras prior to the Aug. 2 deadline.
An exact amount on this year’s qualifying offer, which is set annually at the average of the game’s 125 highest-paid players, has not yet been determined. Last year’s qualifying offer clocked in at $18.4MM, and in 2020 it was set at $18.9MM.
Any player rejecting a qualifying offer is then subject to draft-pick compensation, meaning a team choosing to sign him will be required to surrender at least one pick in the following year’s draft (in addition to potentially forfeiting resources from its international bonus pool. Teams that receive revenue sharing would forfeit their third-highest selection to sign a “qualified” free agent. Non-revenue sharing, non-luxury tax paying teams lose their second-highest pick and $500K of international bonus pool space. The six teams that paid the luxury tax this year — Mets, Dodgers, Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox, Padres — would forfeit their second- and fifth-highest picks as well as $1MM of international pool space. The Cubs, meanwhile, would receive a compensatory pick between Competitive Balance Round B and Round 3 of next summer’s draft — typically in the No. 75 overall range.
The Cubs will still have the remainder of this month and an exclusive five-day window to negotiate with Contreras following the completion of the World Series (as all teams do with their pending free agents). That said, Contreras, who’ll be 31 next May, has been vocal about his desire to remain in Chicago for several years now. No extension has materialized.
In all likelihood, Contreras will hit the open market and sign with a new club — presumably one seeking more offense behind the plate. That’s not to disparage Contreras’ glove; he boasts plus arm strength and one of the fastest pop-times in MLB (1.93 seconds, per Statcast, good for 11th out of 83 catchers in 2022). Contreras, however, generally draws average to below-average marks for framing pitches, and Baseball Prospectus dinged him slightly in 2022 for his work blocking pitches in the dirt (although that was an anomaly and he’s typically graded better than average in that regard).
Broadly speaking, Contreras is far from a liability behind the plate, particularly when it comes to controlling the running game. He doesn’t grade as well when it comes to stealing strikes for his pitchers (and for ensuring that borderline strikes are accurately called), but he’s still a quality option behind the dish — particularly when considering that few of his positional peers can match his work with the bat. Contreras hit .243/.349/.466 with 22 home runs, 23 doubles and a pair of triples in 2022.
Contreras’ 132 wRC+, indicating that he was 32% better than the league-average hitter at the plate, ranked fifth among the 70 catchers who took at least 100 plate appearances in 2022, only narrowly trailing Adley Rutschman (133) and Tyler Stephenson (134) for third on the list behind Contreras’ own brother, William, and Toronto’s Danny Jansen. Given that the average catcher was 11% worse than the league-average hitter, Contreras was about about 43% better at the plate than the average backstop, by measure of wRC+. The only catchers to produce more round-trippers than Contreras were Cal Raleigh, Will Smith and Salvador Perez.
Precisely where Contreras lands in free agency, at this point, is anyone’s guess. He won’t know how things will play out until he gauges interest around the league, but there’s no shortage of teams that could look to upgrade behind the plate. Only seven teams — Braves, Jays, Phillies, A’s, Cubs, Dodgers, Mariners — received offense that was better than that of a league-average hitter from the catcher position in their lineup this season, so even with draft compensation attached, Contreras should command a strong multi-year deal.