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MESA, Ariz. — The vibe around the Cubs as they start spring training feels far different than it has in recent seasons.
Besides Kyle Hendricks, Willson Contreras and Jason Heyward, all of the pieces from the 2016 World Series championship team are gone (unless you also count current manager David Ross). Javier Báez is now a member of the Tigers, and it’s unlikely that Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo walk back through that door. It’s going on six years since the Cubs ended the drought, and for the first time in what seems like years, few outside of the organization are giving Chicago a shot to be in the division race for long.
Hendricks and Heyward, to their benefit, at least didn’t come to camp with contract extensions to think about. Both are locked down through at least next season.
Contreras, on the other hand, came to Sloan Park not only worried about how he’s going to help his team win but also about where he’ll be playing baseball beyond this season. Báez, Bryant and Rizzo went into 2021 spring training with plenty of rumors around their futures in Chicago, and now, Contreras is the one surrounded by question marks.
At least, that’s what had him worried when he came to camp. Now, Contreras says, he’s put all of that out of his mind and is only focused on getting ready for the season.
“Those things were in my head before I got here. Obviously, it happened last year, it can happen this year,” he said. “But to be honest, I live my life one day at a time. Whatever happens in the middle of the year is gonna happen. Life goes on. You’ve got to keep going.”
Contreras is in his last year under contract, and he’s been projected to get paid $8.7 million through arbitration. Because of the MLB lockout, the date for players and teams to exchange arbitration numbers was pushed back to March 22.
Negotiations on a contract extension between Contreras and the Cubs were also affected. Neither side could communicate with the other during the lockout so they couldn’t talk about terms of a deal, though as Contreras noted, it isn’t like there was much of a conversation before the lockout, either.
As of now, there is no news regarding an extension, though the two sides could bring it up while they start talking arbitration. Contreras doesn’t have much control over the arbitration timeline, as that will likely go on into the start of the regular season. He can, however, help dictate when his camp opens itself to extension negotiations, and for right now, there’s about a sixth-month period that Contreras wants to keep closed from those conversations.
“I don’t think I would feel comfortable talking about an extension during the season,” he said. “I’d rather do it before if they’re willing to do it or after if they’re willing to do it.”
While Contreras has made it clear he would love to stay with Chicago, his ears do perk up when he hears free agency or trade rumors. He called the experience of being a free agent “like a dream coming true.” As for potentially being dealt away from the North Side, that won’t be any sort of tragedy for him, either.
“I’m proud,” Contreras said. “I mean, every time that I see trade rumors and I read them, I’m proud of myself. That means that I’m doing good things that the other teams might need or the other team sees good in myself.”
It’s also not like he’s opposed to stoking some of the fire in those rumors. Remember, Contreras caused a stir on Twitter when he posted a cryptic tweet around the same time the Cubs signed veteran catcher Yan Gomes:
“I was trying just to play around,” Contreras said. “… I’m still here, and even though this is the last year, whatever is going to happen between the middle of the year or the end, I’m happy with it.”
What’s that? It is the last year?
“I’m not saying this is gonna be my last year,” he clarified. “Of the contract, yes. I’m not looking forward to leaving the organization, I will say, but I’m in the present. I’m not thinking about getting a contract right now. I just care about playing baseball, getting to know my guys, and having a good season.”
OK, you can wipe the sweat off your forehead, Cubs fans.
Contreras clearly isn’t looking to go anywhere, but he also knows that’s not completely in his control. Whether Chicago decides to trade him before or during the season, allows him to test free agency or commits to him long term, Contreras knows he will make the most of it. Right now, he’s only worried about getting ready for the season and giving the Cubs all he’s got.
“I’m not focused on that,” Contreras said about getting an extension. “I’m focused on having a good year, having fun with my team and trying to win,”
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