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ST. LOUIS — Willson Contreras walked into the Cubs’ clubhouse at Busch Stadium at roughly 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday. He greeted Cubs right fielder Seiya Suzuki and Suzuki’s translator, Toy Matsushita, as he settled in at his locker.
It was a casual greeting from Contreras, one he’d probably give to any given teammate on any given game day. At the time, though, he couldn’t have known whether that was the last time he’d be greeting Suzuki as teammates.
Contreras, the Cubs’ biggest trade chip leading into the the deadline at 5 p.m. Tuesday, still had no word on which team he’d be on in less than a couple hours. Considering the Cubs’ role as sellers, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer and the rest of the front office had been fielding calls for plenty of names on the block, with relievers Chris Martin (Dodgers), Scott Effross (Yankees), David Robertson (Phillies) and Mychal Givens (Mets) already being dealt in the days and hours prior to the deadline. Contreras, though, was still in the dark.
As the team went out to the field for pregame warmups, Contreras didn’t join them. The minutes continued to tick, but still there was no sight of Contreras.
When the clock finally hit 5 p.m., Contreras was met in the clubhouse by his manager, David Ross. Also in the clubhouse was Ian Happ, a fellow All-Star, a fellow homegrown Cub and a fellow trade chip predicted to be shipped elsewhere. Instead of letting either or both of them know they’d been traded, Ross was there to deliver some unexpected good news: neither of them was going anywhere.
“Lots of hugs,” Happ said of the celebration after the duo was told they hadn’t been traded. “Gave Rossy a hug, gave Willy a hug. Happy to be here. Everybody else was out at BP, so it was just, I had to make a couple phone calls and tell everybody to stand down from the panic.”
The Cubs still have another year of club control for Happ, and though he can still be put through the “will they, won’t they” anticipation leading up to next year’s deadline, there’s ample opportunity to talk an extension or at least trade him and make sure his free agency after 2023 won’t be hindered by a qualifying offer tied to draft-pick compensation. The same isn’t true for Contreras.
He’s set to be a free agent this offseason, the same position former teammates Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez were in last July when the Cubs traded them for a haul of prospects that have so far impressed. It felt like some kind of precedent had been set. So, outsiders certainly had reason to believe something similar was in store for Contreras in 2022 — though Hoyer pushed back on that during a post-deadline Zoom call with the media Tuesday.
“Maybe because of last year and the fact that we were able to find deals last year for our expiring contracts that really have held up exceptionally well, I think that maybe there was this assumption that we would definitely move him,” Hoyer said. “There was never anything said by us. We’re not going to talk about contract negotiations, but obviously, I’ve been in communication with his agents throughout the month. We never gave any message to anyone that was like, ‘We’re going to trade him at all costs.’
“We were obviously going to discuss him with teams, and if it makes sense for the Cubs, we’ll do it. I think he knew that, but obviously, I think there was the assumption based on last year that we would do it. And I do feel for him on the emotional toll. Saying goodbye to people, thinking you played your last game with the Cubs, and then obviously not being traded, I think there’s a yo-yo impact of that. But again, it’s not based on any mis-messaging from our side. We never said that. We just never found a deal that came close to the right value.”
Hoyer saying he’s communicated with Contreras’ camp is a first, considering the latter stating there have been no extension talks multiple times since the beginning of spring training. Maybe those talks can pick up now that Contreras is still a Cub for the last two months of the season, but that also begs the question of why an extension hadn’t even been discussed since the season began.
Combine that with reports that the Cubs’ had a high asking price for Contreras that other teams were unwilling to match, and you arrive at the likeliest answer: the Cubs might just value the compensation pick over whatever they were offered in return. That doesn’t mean that an extension is off the table, but that also doesn’t mean the Cubs won’t go the qualifying-offer route, either.
“It was the same calculation that we’ve always made, which is: What is the value of a Comp B pick, and how does that factor into our decision making? How does this impact the free-agent market?” Hoyer said. “It’s basically back to the same calculus we’ve always had.”
When Bryant, Rizzo and Báez were dealt, it was clear that Hoyer was going all in on the rebuild (though he still hasn’t used that term to describe the state of affairs on the North Side). At the time, Hoyer defended the deadline sell-off by saying, “There is no reason to go halfway.”
And as he said Tuesday, those trades have held up well thus far:
- The Bryant trade netted them Caleb Kilian and Alexander Canario from the Giants. Kilian is the Cubs’ No. 6 prospect (per MLB Pipeline) and already made his big-league debut on June 4, while Canario is ranked 19th in the system and has a combined .911 OPS in stints with High-A South Bend and Double-A Tennessee this season.
- The Rizzo deal brought back Kevin Alcantara and Alexander Vizcaino from the Yankees, and the former is the Cubs’ No. 4 prospect and ranks 93rd in MLB Pipeline’s top 100.
- Báez (along with Trevor Williams) was sent to the Mets in exchange for Pete Crow-Armstrong, who’s quickly moved up to the No. 3 prospect in the Cubs’ system and No. 75 in baseball.
But that makes the lack of a deal confusing. Rather than bring back a package to add to their rising farm system — which so far looks like something they did successfully last year — the Cubs instead retained a player they aren’t guaranteed to offer an extension to, let alone get him to sign one.
“It seems like a lot of players stayed put, and I think that was because in a lot of these markets, you had very rational buyers and did not have buyers who were willing to part with certain prospects,” Hoyer said. “We talk about building the next great Cubs team, we’re trying to do that on the back of really good prospects, and simply trading players to say you got prospects that you don’t believe in or don’t find very talented, that doesn’t make anything ‘great’ at all.”
Maybe that is how things played out. Maybe the Cubs’ price was fair all along, and they thought keeping Contreras was better for them than going down to meet suitors’ offers.
Still, not making a deal doesn’t necessarily benefit Contreras himself. He could’ve gone to a contender and helped that team make a run at a World Series title, which he said a week ago he’d be “more than happy” to do. An even bigger benefit to a trade was that he wouldn’t have been eligible to receive the qualifying offer from his new team, and in turn, teams wouldn’t have to worry about losing a draft pick to sign him in free agency.
Because he wasn’t traded to another club, that all still stands. If an extension isn’t worked out and he does test the market, the Cubs could extend that qualifying offer. Teams might then be wary of signing the 30-year-old backstop, not just because of any potential concerns over his play, but also at the the risk of losing a draft pick (or picks).
Contreras, relieved that the deadline came and went and happy that he could still call himself a Cub, holds no ill will for what has transpired this season — not for the lack of clarity on his future, and not for the emotional toll the process took on him. He even put some of the blame on himself.
“They did what they were supposed to do — listen to offers,” Contreras said. “Like I’ve said before, this is business. It’s not about feelings. It’s about business. I don’t have any hard feelings. I think I assumed a lot of things. I think we’re in a good position.”
Then again, seemingly everyone assumed a lot of things: that he’d be traded like his fellow Cubs World Series heroes, that he’d be chasing another ring for the rest of the year, that the Cubs would receive a nice package in return to boost the farm even more.
It’s certainly possible that Hoyer and Co. did nothing wrong leading up to the deadline, and a trade for what they felt Contreras was worth really just wasn’t in the cards. It’s also smart to wait and see how things play out from here.
But even still, this tweet from a former Cubs beat writer perhaps best describes the atmosphere surrounding a head-scratching end — at least as it happened — to the trade deadline for the North Siders:
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