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Back on July 26, on a sunny, 79-degree day in front of a crowd of 30,978 Cubs fans, Willson Contreras thought he was saying goodbye to the fans who’d shown him so much love since he debuted six years earlier.
Contreras, like just about everyone else around Major League Baseball, thought that final home game before the trade deadline would be his last. Nothing was set in stone, but all signs pointed toward Contreras being dealt by the Cubs before they returned to Wrigley Field 10 days later. And so, he treated that day as a final farewell.
Of course, no deal ever transpired. Contreras is still a Cub. He made his triumphant post-trade-deadline return to Wrigley with a game-winning, two-run homer against the Marlins on Aug. 5, and he’ll still be in a Cubs uniform through this last week of the regular season.
Beyond that, nothing is guaranteed. Contreras is set to be a free agent when the MLB season comes to an end. The Cubs aren’t expected to extend him anything outside of a qualifying offer when he hits free agency, and as of now, he won’t say if he’ll accept it (though he did say his camp will “have to consider it”).
So, this three-game series against the Phillies and this upcoming weekend’s set against the Reds, the last two home series of the season, become his second chance to say goodbye to the Cubs faithful — and maybe even for real this time.
Contreras almost didn’t get the opportunity to bid farewell this time around. He’d been on the 10-day injured list since Sept. 6 while dealing with a left ankle sprain, one that had kept him out of action since Aug. 30 after he’d rolled the ankle during the Field of Dreams game on Aug. 11 and tried to battle through it.
It was never a guarantee that Contreras would make it back before the Cubs wrapped up their season. But the chance to play one more home stand, perhaps the last home stand he’ll ever play for the Cubs — that was his priority.
“It was really important for me to come back and play these last series at home,” said Contreras on Tuesday, speaking to the media for the first time in weeks before the Cubs’ 2-1 win over the Phillies. “We all know I’ve been here for 14 years, and we don’t know if it is really goodbye or just for a moment or a few months. I’m just looking forward to going out there and having fun with my teammates. That’s all I can do at this point — just have fun, do the best I can and let things happen.”
He’s not completely wrong, because that is basically all he can do before the season ends. But when he does officially hit free agency, he’ll have more control over his situation than he did back at the end of July.
Yes, the Cubs can extend a qualifying offer (a one-year deal which is estimated to be in the $18-19 million range and seems like a no-brainer decision for the front office), and yes, Contreras will consider it. But he’ll ultimately make the call on whether or not to accept it.
However, is him accepting the offer a scenario that will play out this offseason? It isn’t likely.
For starters, Contreras said back in July when a trade felt inevitable that he would be “more than happy to help a different team get to the World Series.” If winning is something that’s a goal of his, he doesn’t seem to think the Cubs will be in that position anytime soon.
“I know we have a future. I know we have a really good farm system,” Contreras said. “But getting close to win, we’re still gonna have a lot of work to do. I’m being honest. I mean, I know we have a lot of pitching, a lot in the farm system.
“But still, this team’s gonna need some balance like we had in 2016. We had all the veterans, and we had a lot of young talent. That balance creates a good chemistry. The balance creates guys that can guide the younger talent or can be their support. That’s something that they probably are looking forward to for next year, or even, I don’t know how long it’s gonna take.”
Plus, accepting a qualifying offer could create the awkward situation of rejoining an organization that may not want him back, which could then lead to him being right back in trade rumors if the Cubs aren’t competing next season. And if you take what he said Tuesday to heart, that’s not a position he wants to be in again.
“For me, it’s more like feeling that I’m wanted,” Contreras said. “I want to be somewhere that I’m wanted and I feel like they’re going to appreciate what I do on the field and off the field. A place that appreciates what I bring to the clubhouse and what I can do.”
All that is to say, the clock appears to be ticking on Contreras’ time with the only team he’s ever known.
Contreras certainly wants to get paid what he feels he’s worth this offseason, and it probably isn’t a price the Cubs are willing to meet. He said he’s given some thought to what his situation will be like when free agency begins a little over five weeks from now, including which teams might consider him a fit and what kind of contract he’ll be looking for.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about it, my free agency, and I know what I want, for sure,” Contreras said. “But at the same time, I don’t control the market. I think the market will speak for itself, and we’re gonna adjust it and see what happens.
“But [as far as] what I want, I know what I want.”
Contreras has never wavered from his stance that he loves being a Cub and would like to remain in Chicago his entire career. But with a reunion seemingly not in the cards moving forward, these last five games at Wrigley Field might truly be the time for both him and the fans to say their last goodbyes.
“I’m not gonna make any assumptions,” Contreras said about his future on the North Side. “I’m just gonna go out there and have fun and see what’s gonna happen the next few months.”
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