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SAN DIEGO — The news Cubs fans have been dreading all season finally came out of the Winter Meetings on Wednesday: Willson Contreras is no longer a member of the Chicago Cubs.
And even worse for the fans who saw Contreras blossom into a three-time All-Star over the past seven seasons is the fact that he has reportedly agreed to a five-year deal with the Cubs’ bitter rival, the St. Louis Cardinals.
“It’s part of the game,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said Wednesday at the Winter Meetings. “Six years ago, [Dexter] Fowler signed a similar deal to go there after we won a World Series. There’s only 29 other teams people can sign with it. This is going to happen from time to time. I just think that it doesn’t take away from what he did for the organization for a long time.”
That’s all obviously true. Contreras debuted on June 17, 2016, and hit a two-run homer on the first pitch of his first at-bat two days later, and by the end of that season, he was starting behind the plate in Game 7 of the World Series for the eventual championship squad. Since then, he had been a lineup staple. When the rest of the Cubs’ core group from that winning era was all gone, Contreras became the leader and the face that helped fill the void they left behind.
So, this isn’t just any old player leaving town. This is a player who signed with the organization as a teenager out of Venezuela back in 2009, who worked hard to make it to the big leagues seven years later. This is a player who was embraced by the Cubs fan base because of his fire and passion for the game, and who embraced the fans right back for the same reason. He’s a guy who loved the city he called home for seven years and didn’t want to say goodbye.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Cubs fans shower him with anything other than complete love. OK, yes, one exists where the fans see him wearing that Cardinals jersey and let him have it, simply because players come and go but the rivalries last forever.
But then again, Fowler didn’t get that treatment when he returned with St. Louis in June 2017. He got loud cheers from the crowd and even a standing ovation at at least one point. And with all the respect in the world to Fowler and what he came to mean to Cubs fans, Contreras’ bond with them is on a different level.
Plus, it’s not like Contreras wanted to go anywhere. He got choked up talking to the media during the Cubs’ last homestand before this past trade deadline, because he didn’t think he’d make it back to play at Wrigley Field in a Cubs uniform again. He constantly stated his love for the city and the team.
But still, he wanted to feel wanted.
“For me, it’s more like feeling that I’m wanted,” Contreras said during the last homestand of the season. “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.”
Under the assumption all season that the Cubs didn’t want to keep him, the question was always “why not?” Why didn’t the Cubs want to bring back a player who is still just 30 years old, who proved this year can thrive with the designated hitter now in the National League and who became the team’s emotional leader?
Why not Willson Contreras?
Hoyer was actually asked that question Wednesday. He didn’t answer.
“Like I said, he did great things for the organization,” Hoyer said. “I’m really happy for him.”
Without getting a real answer to that question of “why not Contreras?”, we’re left to wonder.
The Cubs seem to want a defensive-minded catcher who can handle a pitching staff and call the right game. Those were reportedly some of the concerns around the league that affected his market leading up to the trade deadline, and if those are valid, they may be part of the reason why the Cubs decided to go in a different direction and not invest the money ($87.5 million) and years (five) it would’ve taken to keep Contreras around.
But those concerns clearly didn’t stop the Cardinals from bringing him into the fold. They decided Contreras was the right guy to replace recently-retired Yadier Molina, who spent his entire 19-year career standing behind the plate for the Redbirds. And that’s not an organization that makes many mistakes when it comes to player acquisition, nor is it an organization that seems keen on losing the draft pick and $500,000 in international bonus pool money thanks to Contreras rejecting the Cubs’ qualifying offer.
It doesn’t hurt Contreras’ side that, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Ben Frederickson, Jon Lester gave his stamp of approval when the Cardinals approached him. Lester was someone who was so particular about his batterymates that now-Cubs manager David Ross finished his career as Lester’s personal catcher. There’s also a reason the Astros were in on Contreras until the very end even after nixing a deadline deal that would’ve sent him to Houston and despite the fact that they just won the World Series thanks to defensive-minded backstops. And with rule changes being implemented next season potentially leading to more aggressiveness on the bases, Contreras’ ability to control the running game is going to be that much more important.
Until the Cubs reveal their reasoning behind not bringing Contreras back, nobody will know for sure. We can infer the reasoning based on the front office’s comments and actions, but that question will still always linger. It’ll linger when the Cubs have a set group of catchers for 2023, and it’ll linger when Contreras returns to Wrigley Field for the first time on May 8.
Without the answer to that question, Cubs fans will just have to live with the memories of Contreras’ best moments in a Cubs uniform and their last goodbye in early October, and they’ll have to try to find some comfort in the words of the president of Contreras’ now-former team.
“I wish him the best,” Hoyer said. “He was a Cub for a long time. Obviously, he came up through our system. I admire how much he fought through kind of those early struggles, and obviously, starting in 2015 he really came on. We won a World Series with him. I admire his toughness and resiliency behind the plate. He played hurt a lot. He always came to the ballpark wanting to play. Obviously, he signed with the Cardinals, but I wish him happiness. He gave us a lot of happiness, and I wish him the same.”
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