Earlier this week, catcher Willson Contreras was one of 12 players to reject a qualifying offer, officially allowing the Cubs to recoup draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere. As a team that did not pay the competitive balance tax or receive revenue sharing, the Cubs would be entitled to an extra pick just before the third round. That seems to be their goal, as contract talks with Contreras never seemed to gain much momentum and they are now discussing other backstops such as free agents Omar Narváez and Christian Vázquez, according to a report from Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic. There’s nothing yet to indicate they have reached out to the players or their representatives, but the fact that other catchers have been “discussed internally” by the Cubs is nonetheless notable.
Since a Contreras reunion doesn’t seem to be in the cards, the Cubs are currently lined up to go into 2023 with three catchers on their 40-man roster: Yan Gomes, P.J. Higgins and Miguel Amaya. Gomes is a veteran going into his 12th MLB season, which will also be the second of the two-year, $13MM deal he signed with the Cubs a year ago. Once that deal was signed, speculation mounted that the Cubs were set to deal Contreras, though that didn’t come pass. Gomes took a step back at the plate in 2022 but was still solid on the other side of the ball. He hit .235/.260/.365 for a wRC+ of 73 but posted 5 Defensive Runs Saved in just 86 games. He could still be a factor for 2023 but he’ll turn 36 during the year and then become a free agent again, meaning he likely won’t be part of the club’s long-term plans.
Higgins, 30 in May, has done some hitting in the minors but hasn’t been able to transfer that to the big leagues just yet. In 83 career games, his batting line is .210/.291/.348 for a wRC+ of 83. He posted a -6 DRS behind the plate and actually spent more time at the infield corners, meaning he’s likely considered more of a third string/emergency catcher.
Amaya, 24 in March, could be a long-term solution but has question marks in the short term. He’s considered one of the club’s top 15 prospects by both Baseball America and FanGraphs. However, he dealt with forearm issues in 2021 and ultimately required Tommy John surgery. He returned to the field this year and got into 40 games in the minors but hasn’t played anything close to a full season since 2019 and has yet to reach Triple-A. It’s possible he gets to the MLB level in 2023 but it doesn’t seem like something that should be expected or relied upon.
Even though the club seems content to let Contreras walk and recoup the draft pick when he signs elsewhere, they will likely need to do something to supplement this group. Vázquez is arguably the second-best free agent backstop behind Contreras, having been Boston’s regular catcher over the past few years. He’s hit around league average in that time, producing a .271/.318/.416 batting line from 2019 through the present for a wRC+ of 95. He’s also provided quality defense and is considered to be an all-around contributor. He was traded to the Astros at the deadline and served as Martin Maldonado’s backup in Houston, though he’s looking for a full-time job again going forward. That perhaps make him and the Cubs a less-than-perfect fit, given the presence of Gomes, though it’s possible Vázquez would be fine with sharing time in a similar manner to what Contreras and Gomes did in 2022. MLBTR predicted Vázquez could earn a contract of $27MM over three years.
As for Narváez, 31 in February, he will likely be attainable with a lesser commitment than Vázquez would take. Considered a bat-first catcher for the early part of his career, he came to the Brewers and flipped that. He’s posted strong defensive numbers in each of the past three years but hit .233/.318/.350 for a wRC+ of 85. However, as a left-handed hitter, he would pair well with the Cubs’ incumbent catchers, all of whom hit from the right side. He didn’t have strong platoon splits in 2022 but his career numbers definitely favor his work against righties.
Although Narváez and Vázquez were mentioned by name, the Cubs have surely discussed various other scenarios. The rest of the free agent market includes names like Gary Sánchez, Austin Hedges and Roberto Pérez. There’s also the trade market to consider, with Sean Murphy of the Athletics frequently mentioned in rumors and the Blue Jays looking to cash in their surplus. Whichever route they take, the Cubs shouldn’t have financial concerns. The ongoing rebuild means their current payroll is well below previous seasons, and none of the non-Contreras options will require huge expenditures regardless. They will have competition, however, with the Cardinals being one team that’s already known to be looking for catching help.