As one of the few remaining holdovers from the World Series title in 2016, you would think the Cubs might want to keep Willson Contreras around a little longer. I suppose the fact that he’s one of the better offensive catchers in the game factors as well. Yet the team hasn’t engaged him in extension talks and doesn’t appear poised to do so even with the lockout over, putting the question mark of his future in bold font.
It doesn’t help that the Yankees, who have already acquired one former member of the Cubs’ core, traded away Gary Sánchez and now appear to be planning on a platoon of Ben Rortvedt and Kyle Higashioka behind the plate. That is the very definition of a defense-first duo, with Higashioka boasting a .183/.234/.385 slash in 415 career MLB plate appearances and Rortvedt going .241/.316/.355 over 1,258 minor league PAs.
The lefty-batting Rortvedt is expected to outperform the .169 with a .510 OPS in 98 PAs he posted for the Twins last year, but we’re probably talking about replicating those numbers from the minors at best. The same trade that brought him to New York may have announced the Yankees’ exit from the Carlos Correa sweepstakes, as they picked up Isiah Kiner-Falefa and don’t want to block their top prospects at short.
The Yankees are also thought to be out on Freddie Freeman, pivoting instead to Anthony Rizzo as “the realistic good first base option now.” While that could all be posturing, these moves would see the Bronx bombers downgrading offensively from either in-house or external options at three different key positions. As such, it’s pretty easy to draw a line between their current situation and a possible run at a star catcher whose team has been all too willing to ship out fan favorites.
Contreras isn’t blind to any of this because he’s lived it for the last two years or so and he’s now acutely aware that the business of baseball doesn’t always create fairytale endings. To that end, he’s taking everything in stride and viewing the coming days and months with as healthy a perspective as you could imagine.
“I think [free agency] would be like a dream come true, especially coming from the bottom of the organization,” Contreras told reporters Sunday at camp. “I started here as a third baseman. Coming all the way through the Minor Leagues, converting as a catcher and earning my spot as a Chicago Cubs catcher, it would be fun to have that experience.”
The context he provides here is really important when assessing that statement, which is more about his career as a ballplayer than some sort of clue that he wants out. Contreras signed as a 17-year-old and spent parts of eight seasons in the farm system before debuting with a smash, literally, in 2016. He’s really in a win-win situation at this point because he can either work out an extension with the only organization he’s ever known or he can see what it’s like to be courted.
That takes us back to Rizzo, who cited Jon Lester when talking about the possibility of establishing a legacy with two different teams. Contreras isn’t thinking that far ahead, at least not publicly, because he’s trying to stay in the moment for now.
“I’m not looking forward to leaving the organization I will say, but I’m in the present,” he said. “I’m not thinking about getting a contract right now, I’m just thinking about playing baseball, getting to know my guys, and hav(ing) a good season.”
There have been reports that the Cubs will “almost certainly” try to move Contreras if they’re not able to extend him, which led a lot of folks to believe signing Yan Gomes was an indication that the door to a trade had been flung open. But even though Gomes received the largest contract the Cubs have given a position player since Jason Heyward, his presence on the roster is as much about giving Contreras more time off.
Jed Hoyer and David Ross both noted at the end of last season that the everyday catcher was getting worn down, something we’ve seen in previous seasons as well. Knowing the DH was inevitable, and having cycled through about 17 different emergency options in 2021, the Cubs were able to go out and add a capable backup while still maintaining the ability to write Contreas into the lineup.
“If I’m gonna play DH this year, it’s gonna help me a lot with my legs,” Contreras told reporters. “Take my rest and take my days off and stay healthy. That’s the main thing for me this year.”
As we saw all too clearly last year, and even longer in the case of Kris Bryant, the uncertainty is going to hang over Contreras and the entire organization until it’s resolved one way or the other. Every day the Cubs don’t come with an extension offer, the likelihood of keeping the catcher around diminishes that much further and you will actually be able to feel fans’ faith waning.
The business side of the organization is already feeling that, as the Cubs have begun offering more partial-season ticket packages than before. And after extending deadlines to make season-ticket deposits, reps are calling former ticket holders to make last-ditch efforts to secure their renewals. Gosh, that doesn’t seem like something a team with a waiting list 50,000 names long would need to do. But I digress.
I’ve said for a long time now that Contreras was the core player who made the most sense to trade because he had an extra year of control and his skills may not age as well. However, he now has no control beyond this year and the Cubs have already traded their other stars to clear salary. What’s more, top catching prospect Miguel Amaya has logged just 106 plate appearances over the last two seasons and will miss all of 2022 following Tommy John surgery.
Maybe Hoyer is just waiting to see what happens with Correa or maybe he’s got a big offer for his catcher that will be announced just before the season like we saw with Kyle Hendricks. Whatever the case, the Cubs need to rip this band-aid off now rather than letting the string play out to an anticlimactic end in July.