If the Cubs are at all considering Willson Contreras as a trade chip, which early reports indicate they very well could be, they just gained hella leverage Thursday with news that the White Sox have signed Yasmani Grandal. The former Dodger and Brewer beat the market in a big way, forgoing $60 million over four years with the Mets last season in favor of one year at $18.25 million with the Brewers. He then parlayed that into $73 million over four years with the Sox, the largest contract in franchise history. Not bad.
Setting aside for a moment this move’s impact on the catching market as a whole, let’s consider how it’ll impact the Cubs over the next few seasons. Even assuming a little fall-off from a guy who just turned 31 a couple weeks ago and has caught 4,126.2 innings over the last four seasons, Grandal is an upgrade over just about any catcher in baseball. The Reds had also been pursuing him and had been predicted to land him, so going to the South Side means he’s out of the division and won’t face the Cubs 19 times.
The catching market is moving and moving fast. The Cincinnati Reds were in on Yasmani Grandal as well. He was clearly the best of the group — and ultimately did well to turn down the Mets' four-year offer last year, get $18.25M from Milwaukee and now get $73M from the White Sox.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 21, 2019
ESPN’s Jeff Passan tweeted that the “catching market is moving and moving fast,” but it was a top-heavy group to begin with and has now lost its consensus No. 1 target. Travis d’Arnaud is next on the list and he may only be looking at $14 million or so over two years. Then it’s Robinson Chirinos and Jason Castro, neither of whom really moves the needle.
Even if you figure the Brewers will end up with one of those guys, it’ll be a significant downgrade over what they got from Grandal this past season. Other teams looking for catching help will likewise be weighing somewhat lateral moves or very minor upgrades. Unless they look to the trade market.
Grandal latching on with a team that hadn’t previously been seen as a top candidate for his services means the value of controlled catchers just got ratcheted up a few notches. Please note that I’m not saying the Cubs should or will trade Contreras as a result, but their asking price has surely increased from where it was. That, or interested teams just got more willing to meet the Cubs’ price.
Of course, it’s not as simple as just getting a big return. In order for the Cubs to move Contreras, an All-Star starter who has served as an emotional sparkplug since the moment he homered on his first MLB swing, they’d have to have unwavering confidence in Victor Caratini to get the job done. Depending on how you look at it, Wednesday’s decision not to place versatile catcher P.J. Higgins on the 40-man roster could say a lot about the Cubs’ plans in that regard. Or it could say nothing.
Higgins is a good bet to be selected in December’s Rule 5 Draft, at which point it’s expected he’ll be gone for good. That weakens organizational depth at the position, though Miguel Amaya will be at Double-A and Jhonny Pereda should still be around as well. If the Cubs believe Caratini can do for a full season what his minor league numbers and his performance last year as a backup say he’s capable of, they might be willing to go with a cheap, glove-first veteran backup and flip Contreras for a big haul.
On the other hand, leaving Higgins unprotected might mean there’s no way the Cubs would trade Contreras and risk the next year or two on an unproven group. Though the final decision is going to be up to the front office, this could be one in which David Ross has a very heavy hand. As a former catcher who has played with and coached Contreras, his insight may very well be what pushes the Cubs one way or the other.
I want to reiterate once again that I’m not saying the Cubs should trade Contreras. I am, however, saying that his value will never be higher than it is right now as a 27-year-old with three years of control and his athletic prime remaining. Catchers don’t age well as a rule and the player in question relies more heavily than most on the kind of quick-twitch skills that tend to show rust first. From a pure timing perspective, it makes sense to trade Contreras now…if they want to go that route.
All that said, this is a player whose framing improved toward the end of last season and who could develop further under a manager who’s actually taking a hands-on approach rather than just paying lip service to it. The Cubs could very well see fit to build around him rather than to use him to obtain other building blocks. If they believe he can get even better, it’s hard to imagine someone else really filling his cleats.
Either way, you might want to get used to hearing about Contreras in trade rumors, because they’re not going to stop until spring training gets underway.