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The first area of negotiations involving the Cubs and Willson Contreras this season has finally come to a close.
The Cubs announced Thursday morning that the team avoided arbitration with the 30-year-old catcher after coming to terms on a one-year contract. Official numbers weren’t disclosed, but ESPN’s Jesse Rogers first reported (and other reports later confirmed) the deal to be worth $9.625 million, halfway between the reported $10.25 million and $9 million numbers filed by Contreras and the Cubs, respectively, back in March.
The news came as something of a surprise considering how president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer described the team’s “file-and-trial” policy earlier in the season. On Opening Day, Hoyer said because the two sides had passed the March 22 deadline to file salary figures, they would move forward with the hearing. However, things clearly changed — possibly due to the 99-day lockout forcing hearings to be held in-season — and the two sides were able to come to an agreement.
That takes care of Contreras’ contract status for 2022, but more negotiations involving Contreras are still to come.
The questions surrounding his future in Chicago haven’t gone away. The 2022 season is the last that Contreras is under contract with the Cubs, and he’s set to hit free agency this offseason. That’s where the main questions lie: will the Cubs do what they can to sign him to an extension, or will they deal him before the trade deadline on Aug. 2?
The expectation is that the Cubs will be sellers at the deadline, and their most valuable commodity for teams looking to make a postseason run is their seventh-year backstop.
Offensively, he’s been far and away the best catcher in the big leagues this year. Of qualified major league catchers, Willson Contreras holds the top spots on FanGraphs’ leaderboards for wOBA (.408), wRC+ (162) and WAR (2.2). Go over to Baseball Savant’s Statcast leaderboards, and you’ll see that Contreras also ranks first among qualified catchers in average exit velocity (93.5 mph), max exit velocity (116.2 mph) and hard-hit percentage (57.1%) while ranking third in barrel percentage (12.7%).
“He just looks comfortable,” manager David Ross said last week. “I think confidence is a great thing. He’s inside the baseball, he’s hitting the ball the other way, he’s hitting the ball for power, he’s taking his walks. I think he’s just in a really good space, and whatever he did in the offseason, the hard work he’s put in and the start he’s gotten off to, it’s all kind of coming together.”
He isn’t considered among the top defensive catchers in baseball but he has improved defensively throughout his career. Plus, with the designated hitter now being used in both leagues and with Contreras’ offensive stats being even better when he’s used as the DH, that should more than offset any defensive concerns inquiring teams might have.
If the Cubs were one of those teams in position for a postseason run, there’s probably no scenario in which Contreras is dealt at the deadline. But that’s not where this team is right now.
Entering Friday, the Cubs were 10 games under .500. They sat 8 1/2 games behind first-place Milwaukee in the National League Central and seven games back of the last NL Wild Card spot. As it stands, the Cubs look like sellers come trade-deadline season, and barring some miraculous turnaround over the next seven weeks, it’s very likely Contreras will be playing for a new team for the last few months of the season.
When the Cubs went through their 11-game losing streak last season that put the proverbial nail in the coffin, Hoyer didn’t let sentimentality get in the way of dealing franchise stars Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez (who were all set to be free agents at season’s end) to help restock the farm system. This year, despite the Cubs making an exception and negotiating with Contreras prior to the scheduled arbitration hearing, Hoyer isn’t expected to play things any differently with the two-time (and soon-to-be three-time) All-Star catcher.
Not that that’s necessarily had an effect on the relationship between the team and the player.
Hoyer has said all along how much he enjoyed having Contreras around and seeing the success he was having.
“Willson and I get along great,” Hoyer said last month. “I talk to him almost every day. There’s no tension there. I love the way he’s playing. I think having (backup catcher) Yan (Gomes) here is helping him in the sense that he’s really fresh, and I think we’re seeing that.”
And Contreras, to his credit, has downplayed the constant speculation surrounding his status with the team. He’s said since the beginning of spring training that he is in a good place, and after watching and learning from the situation with his former teammates in 2021, he came into this season with the mindset that any outside noise wouldn’t affect how he approached the game.
But if the relationship is as good as both sides say it is, that brings up the question on the other side of the coin: can the Cubs look to build around Contreras and offer him an extension?
The first time Contreras met with reporters following the lockout, he said he didn’t know if he’d be comfortable having extension talks mid-season. He’s since softened on that stance, and if the other side decided to engage in those talks, there is still a chance a deal could be reached — however small that chance is.
There is an argument that an extension could benefit the Cubs more than a trade. Contreras’ offensive numbers speak for themselves. His average (.277), OPS (.933), walk rate (11.9%) and strikeout rate (19.9%), among plenty of other stats, would be the best marks of his career. There aren’t many catchers in baseball who have that kind of talent at the plate, and the Cubs have one who loves playing on the North Side.
There’s also the fact that, with most of the top players from the 2016 World Series championship squad now playing elsewhere, Contreras has become the leader in the clubhouse. Not that he chose to take on the role or that the rest of the team forced him into it. It’s a role that’s naturally become his because of the way he’s handled himself on and off the field.
“Every good team is going to have a leader,” Justin Steele said. “That’s just how things work. It’s not like the team selects a leader. It’s just the guys that are natural-born leaders, they’re just going to be themselves and they’re just going to naturally lead. That’s just kind of how them things work.”
Steele is a prime example of how much Contreras can influence young or less-seasoned players. When Steele made his big league debut out of the bullpen on April 12, 2021, Contreras was the one who helped him focus and work through 1 1/3 scoreless innings. Over the last year-plus, it’s been Contreras who’s helped Steele through the process of becoming what the Cubs hope is a full-time member of the rotation.
“Having a catcher that’s invested in the process with you, cares about your process as well, that’s always huge” Steele said. “Willy has always done a great job. When he caught me in my debut, making sure I was confident, making sure I was present. It’s always important.”
Then there’s PJ Higgins, who like Contreras, converted into a primary catcher in the minors. His first shot in the big leagues in 2021 was cut short after just nine games when a right forearm strain turned into season-ending elbow surgery. He found his way back to Wrigley Field while the Cubs were bit hard by the injury bug, and even though he’s only a year younger than Contreras, he still turns to him for advice as he moves along in his second big-league stint.
“Just any questions that I have, I ask him when that comes to mind, and he’s always open to talk to me about anything in that regard,” Higgins said. “He’s always open to it. He definitely helps me out whenever I need to. We’ve had a good relationship.”
And then there’s Christopher Morel, the rookie sensation whose relationship with Contreras is well-documented. On June 1, when Morel was in position to drive in the winning run in the bottom of the 10th against the Brewers, he fell behind 0-2 in the count. The broadcast then caught the moment that perhaps best encapsulates what Contreras means to Morel.
Contreras, who said he’d been in a similar situation early in his career, noticed Morel was rushing. Standing in the on-deck circle, he got Morel’s attention, and when Morel turned to look back at him, Contreras took a deep breath (with an exaggerated arm movement and puffing of his chest to boot) to remind him to slow down and breathe in that moment. Morel followed Contreras’ instructions, and two pitches later, Morel hit a sacrifice fly to score Jason Heyward from third for his first career walk-off.
And that’s just one moment the camera managed to catch. Even outside of what the public sees, Contreras has played a part in helping Morel succeed three weeks into his big league career.
“Everything,” Morel said through team interpreter Will Nadal, when asked what Contreras does for him off the field. “I think what the cameras have captured are just a brief snapshot of everything that Willson does for me. I think outside of the cameras and outside of the game, he does so much. Inside of the ballpark, outside of the ballpark, he’s always there for me. He treats me like a friend. He treats me like family. So I’m really grateful to him and everything that he’s doing that doesn’t show up on the cameras to help me out.”
The Cubs are in a clear transition period, one they hope can quickly connect the winning ways of the Theo Epstein era to whenever Hoyer’s “Next Great Cubs Team” arrives. The Cubs have Heyward and Kyle Hendricks as fellow on-field voices from that championship roster, while Ross provides championship experience from the manager’s seat. But a homegrown leader like Contreras, one who’s been with the organization since he was 17 years old, carries a lot of weight in the clubhouse, and keeping him around during this transition period could help move the rebuild on quicker than it would go without him.
Looking at the precedent Hoyer set at last year’s trade deadline, though, all of that may not matter. Hoyer doesn’t want to make the mistakes the previous regime made in not developing the farm system to a level that could sustain the team’s contending window for more than six or seven years. The prospects the Cubs got in those deadline deals have impressed so far in 2022, and Contreras could certainly net another set of players to help further restock the minor league teams with talent.
At this point, that seems to be the direction things are going. There’s a lot of time between now and the deadline, and considering the two sides did end up negotiating a 2022 deal and avoiding arbitration, an extension is not completely out of the question.
However, for a team that’s almost certainly going to be selling when the time comes, hoping the Cubs will hold onto their biggest trade chip seems more like wishful thinking than anything.
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