Cubs' approach with Contreras doesn't make sense
Having baseball's best catcher on your roster should be a positive in every conceivable storyline.
The Cubs managed to turn it into a lingering, depressing dilemma.
Willson Contreras has been in the spotlight all week, from hitting a pair of home runs on Tuesday to matching up against his younger brother William for the first time on Saturday.
When the Cubs snapped their losing streak Friday, he could be seen giving advice to Christopher Morel from the on-deck circle and sweeping his arms to show Jonathan Villar where to slide when he scored the winning run.
Then Sunday marked the six-year anniversary of Contreras' first major league at-bat, when he parked the first pitch he saw into center field for a 2-run homer against the Pirates. Contreras commemorated the occasion with an Instagram post calling Wrigley Field, "THE BEST place ever to play baseball."
It wasn't quite as good Sunday, but there was still a full house on hand to watch the Cubs lose to the Braves 6-0 and fail in their bid to sweep the defending champs.
So why aren't the Cubs at least trying to keep Contreras around long term? Maybe there's communication happening behind the scenes, but as it stands now, pretty much the entire MLB world expects Contreras to be dealt before the Aug. 2 trade deadline. Fan anger isn't hard to find on any social media platform.
Last July, before the pending free agents were cleared from the roster, one could make an argument Anthony Rizzo was on the decline, Javy Baez was too erratic and Kris Bryant wasn't worth $30 million per season (he got $27.3 over six years from Colorado). How do the Cubs talk themselves out of keeping Contreras?
This is an era when most teams treat their catchers like NFL running backs. Get a couple decent ones and have them rotate.
Offensive-minded catchers are a rarity these days. Contreras spends a decent amount of time at designated hitter, but heading into Sunday's action he ranked fourth in the National League in OPS, behind Paul Goldschmidt, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. The next highest ranked catcher on the list is the Dodgers' Will Smith at 44th.
Maybe Contreras' agent is pushing him to test his value on the open market, which is understandable. From the Cubs side, they didn't get very far in negotiations with Bryant, Rizzo or Baez either.
But there were two contracts given to catchers last year that could serve as guidelines for a Contreras deal. J.T. Realmuto received $115 million over five years from Philadelphia, while Kansas City's Salvador Perez got five years and $82 million.
There are a couple of other circumstances that apply to the Cubs here. One is, how far will they go to tear this down? They've got a chance to keep a veteran from the 2016 World Series team to stick around as a team leader.
Contreras turned 30 last month, so he'll probably be in his prime for another four or five years. If they trade him away, are the Cubs saying they're not planning to be a playoff contender before 2027?
Another question is who would replace him? The Cubs have a catching prospect who's been ranked relatively high in the system with Miguel Amaya, but he's not playing this year due to Tommy John surgery. The Panama native started just 12 games at catcher for Double A Tennessee last season, after 2020 was wiped out by the pandemic.
Amaya threw out 9 of 20 basestealers for Tennessee last summer, which is encouraging, but his future with the Cubs is very uncertain due to the limited playing time. If Contreras leaves, maybe the Cubs' plan will be to rotate Yan Gomes and P.J. Higgins while waiting to see if Amaya develops.
A few weeks ago, I asked Contreras if his unsettled future with the Cubs weighs on his mind and he responded with a chuckle.
"I'm really good where I am right now," he said. "I know the fans are kind of mad because of everything that's happened. But I'm really at peace with my mind, really at peace with myself and whatever comes, I'll be good with it."
Until he actually leaves, there will always be a chance Contreras stays with the Cubs. Fans were hardened by what happened last year at the deadline, but this is shaping up as another ugly ending on the North Side.
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