The heel turn of the Chicago Cubs has been among the more fascinating developments across Major League Baseball over the last handful of years. One imagines that it’d be nearly impossible to burn through the goodwill of winning the organization’s first World Series championship in over a century. Let alone leave the tank on empty barely five years later.
But the Cubs have done it. There have been a host of off-the-field issues. There’s obviously a dark political side wrought by ownership. They failed to re-sign a quartet of franchise cornerstones. With the exception of Kyle Schwarber (non-tendered), they traded three of them within barely 48 hours of each other. They’ve plummeted to the depths of a weak division. While management won’t use the word “rebuild,” that’s where they find themselves. Again.
Kyle Hendricks, Jason Heyward, and Willson Contreras serve as the last remnants of an already bygone era. Hendricks is likely entrenched on the roster for the remainder of his contract (through 2024). He hasn’t been the same pitcher the last couple of seasons, but he eats innings and his skill set should age fairly well. It’s tough to justify a move for either party. Heyward is one of the more infamous sunk costs in the game. He might not make it through the year if enough outfield prospects prove their mettle in Iowa and earn a shot at a Wrigley Field cup of coffee. Even his defensive production has slipped the last couple of years.
Among the three, Willson Contreras possesses perhaps the most unclear future with the organization. In reality, of course, it should be quite the opposite.
There are 33 catchers who have recorded at least 100 plate appearances thus far in 2022. Contreras’ 2.2 fWAR tops them all. In fact, only Alejandro Kirk’s 1.8 is within a stone’s throw on the leaderboard. He’s striking out at the lowest rate of his career (19.9 percent). He’s walking at the highest (11.9). His ISO sits at .253 and his wRC+ is at 162, as of this writing. Those also represent career-bests. Furthermore, he’s sitting 99th percentile in HardHit% (57.1). He’s 97th percentile in average exit velocity (93.5 MPH). His Barrel% (12.7 percent) sits in the 85th. Simply put, Contreras has been mashing in a way we haven’t really seen to this point in his career.
As such, the Cubs have also deployed him 13 times as a designated hitter. That trails only Frank Schwindel and Rafael Ortega for the team lead. He’s always been adept on the offensive side, especially at a position that is so devoid of quality bats. Defensively, he’s been a bit more of a mixed bag.
Catcher Defensive Adjustment, Baseball Prospectus’ catch-all catcher metric (to oversimplify), has him at -3.2. He was -4.9 in 2021, but was at 3.4 in 2020. More specific metrics (Called Strikes Above Average, Swipe Rate Above Average, etc.) have generally painted him as a slightly below-average defensive catcher. His arm and athleticism count for something, though. And when you factor in the offensive punch he adds to a lineup, there are few catchers more valuable to their team than Contreras is to the Cubs.
Which is what makes the Cubs’ increasingly conscious decision to not extend Contreras all the more confounding. There were various justifications for not extending any of Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez, and Kris Bryant. Rizzo has a wonky back and is on the wrong side of 30. Báez has a strikeout thing and is prone to stretches of erraticism. And the organization always had a weird relationship with Bryant going back to his service time manipulation. I didn’t say the justifications were good. Nonetheless, Jed Hoyer insisted they left the best offer for each on the table. Contreras, however, is a more unique quantity among the Cubs’ recent stars.
A free agent at the end of this year, Contreras does represent perhaps the biggest option for the Cubs on the trade market. While they’re — and I cannot stress this enough — not rebuilding, they’re looking to stockpile their farm system with young talent. They’ve done a fairly good job of that the last couple of years. Contreras could, in theory, help them continue that trend.
At the same time, the point has been made by smarter folks than I on Twitter that a midseason trade of a catcher isn’t likely to fetch quite the return you think. For one, you’ve got the free agent factor. For another, it would take him time to integrate into a new team’s pitching staff. By the time that’s done, it’s November. So if you’re expecting the world for your above-average offensive, slightly below-average-ish defensive catcher, then you’re going to come up short. In that case, wouldn’t it make much more sense for the Cubs to maintain their franchise cornerstone behind the dish?
After all, it’s not as if the Cubs are flush with upcoming talent back there. Miguel Amaya has taken steps back in recent years, both in health and in performance. The only other backstop in their Top 30 prospects is Pablo Aliendo, who is only 21 and hasn’t appeared above High-A. Isn’t the certainty that Contreras presents at the position far more valuable to the Cubs as an organization than it would be to anyone else? Especially if you’re planning to come out of
a rebuild whatever this organizational stretch is. From a roster construction standpoint — and just a general organizational philosophy — it would seem that an extension for Willson Contreras makes more sense than a trade or letting him walk at season’s end. But by failing to make headway in that regard, the Cubs have created a conundrum that all logic indicates should not exist.
There are options on the upcoming free agent markets at shortstop. There are options in the outfield. And Frank Schwindel has filled in admirably at first, even if a late bloomer. Patrick Wisdom, too, at third base. They had their reasons for not extending previous stars (misguided as they might have been). But if the Cubs, who deemed Schwarber, Rizzo, Báez, and Bryant unworthy of hefty extensions, don’t believe that Contreras isn’t worth a long-term investment, then who really is?
Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire Adapted by Matt Fletcher (@little.gnt on Instagram)