Did Willson Contreras Extension Just Become Way More Likely?

The Cubs and Willson Contreras reportedly haven’t had meaningful conversations about an extension since 2017, which had more than a few folks thinking the failure to trade him meant he is good as gone this winter. While that could certainly be the case, a combination of factors leading up to and following the trade deadline may serve to make a new deal to stay in Chicago even more likely.

As discussed on The Rant Live Wednesday and then laid out with some detailed speculation by Arizona Phil at The Cub Reporter, an extension makes more sense now under the circumstances. Bearing in mind that this is opinion and not sourced info, AZ Phil believes there’s a very strong chance that Contreras accepts the Cubs’ qualifying offer and then works out a front-loaded deal to stick around for a while longer.

One of the big keys here, and something we mentioned on the show, is that any multi-year contract would need to have a no-trade clause. After what Contreras went through, I can’t imagine him taking a deal that would set him up for similar emotional stress in the future. But the real key to everything is the QO and what it means for a market that already appears to have been hampered even before considering the draft pick penalty for signing a player who has rejected an offer.

There was a lot of chatter heading up to the deadline about teams having concerns over Contreras being able to mesh with and handle a new pitching staff. Some of that was undoubtedly gamesmanship meant to drive down the asking price, but his defensive metrics aren’t tremendous and he’s not a renowned game-caller. Even with the eventuality of an automated strike zone, some of those knocks will remain.

The Mets, who should have been willing to go big to upgrade the catching position, were scared to deal with the Cubs because they didn’t want to be burned again like they were in the Pete Crow-Armstrong deal. Then they watched as Jacob deGrom got just one run of support in his season debut. Whatever the reason, the Mets and other teams were simply unwilling to meet the high price the Cubs had set.

“Like last year, we were willing to listen if someone gave us a piece that could really help our future,” Jed Hoyer told reporters after the deadline. “We never crossed that threshold. Willson is a really valuable player, he’s been a great Cub for six years now and we never got to that place where we felt comfortable making a deal to end his tenure here.”

That the Cubs couldn’t get what they wanted says a little about the outside perception of Contreras, though there’s a vast difference between acquiring a star player for two months and signing them to a longer deal. At the same time, however, the bugaboo of his catching prowess — which the Cubs haven’t helped by using him at DH so often — is going to work against him in free agency. Now add draft pick forfeiture and you’ve got an even bigger hindrance.

Ah, but there’s one team that won’t have to worry about forfeiting a pick in order to sign Contreras. That happens to be the same team with which he is intimately familiar, though staying in Chicago beyond this year might mean taking a significant discount over what he’d expected to command heading into this season. J.T. Realmuto‘s five-year, $115 million deal has been talked about as a very optimistic target, but something a little shy of nine figures feels a lot more realistic.

Even that may be difficult to achieve in light of the factors working against Contreras, so something like what AZ Phil lays out could be in his best interest. Accepting the QO of $20 million would enable him to work out a longer deal, maybe four years or so, that features a no-trade clause and an opt-out or two. While I tend to believe the $70 million total put forth above is a little light, maybe by $10 million or so, there’s a lot of intrinsic value in the NTC and player options.

That brings it back around to Contreras himself, who just experienced something akin to free agency in the sense that he was preparing himself for life with a team other than the Cubs. One school of thought is that the team putting him in that position might have soured the loyalty factor, but another is that he may have realized just how much he wants to stay with the only organization he’s ever known.

The bigger question is whether he’s willing to accept a reduced catching role that figures to trend down further over time. That will probably be the case for him with any team, so the Cubs figure to have an advantage when it comes to preference.

Speaking of which, we need to ask whether the Cubs would even be willing to offer what appears to be a very reasonable hypothetical extension of four years and $80 million or less. They have clearly gone very heavy on pitching lately and the care of those arms at the highest level may not be something they’re willing to entrust to Contreras. Lord knows they’ve not been keen on extensions in general, though a rare exception here is possible.

I’m not at bullish as AZ Phil on the likelihood of either a QO acceptance or an extension, but I do think getting something worked out makes the most sense for both Contreras and the Cubs.

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