Gonzales: Where's Willson? For now -- and perhaps for a long time -- with the Cubs

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Cubs catcher Willson Contreras is known primarily for his work behind the plate, but also has some pop in his bat despite a career-low .237 batting average in 2021.

    Cubs catcher Willson Contreras is known primarily for his work behind the plate, but also has some pop in his bat despite a career-low .237 batting average in 2021. Associated Press

  • Willson Contreras collides with the legs of third base umpire Dan Iassogna after being tagged out by San Diego third baseman Manny Machado June 1 at Wrigley Field.

    Willson Contreras collides with the legs of third base umpire Dan Iassogna after being tagged out by San Diego third baseman Manny Machado June 1 at Wrigley Field. Associated Press

 
Updated 12/30/2021 9:59 AM

Shortly after the Cubs signed free agent catcher Yan Gomes to a two-year, $13 million contract last month, Willson Contreras tweeted an emoji with a plane departing and landing.

But could that turn out to be a trip circling Wrigley Field?

 

Contreras, one of the most refreshing personalities to wear a Cubs uniform in recent decades, isn't afraid to express his emotions.

After watching Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant traded hours before the July 31 trade deadline and two months before becoming free agents, Contreras clearly was pondering his future when he posted his ominous emoji.

Contreras is the lone homegrown star currently destined for free agency after 2022. Like the traded trio, Contreras' representatives and the Cubs haven't reached a long-term extension in recent winters. His credentials don't match those of J.T. Realmuto, who signed a five-year, $115.5 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies last January, three months after becoming a fee agent.

Contreras, however, brings all-around value that the Cubs can't discount. He has matured into a respectable pitch framer that has accompanied his rifle arm and agility.

In the process, Contreras has absorbed the scrutiny and criticism since joining the Cubs in the midst of their 2016 World Series season and evolved steadily as a leader with his production and wisdom.

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Contreras hasn't pointed the finger at his pitchers pleading for more protection despite getting hit by pitches 28 times in the last two seasons, including 14 during the COVID-19 impacted 60-game season in 2020.

Contreras, 29, was second among National League catchers in games started (112) and third in innings caught (935⅔), and he might have led the league in both categories had he not been placed on the injured list for three weeks in August due to a knee sprain.

One of the biggest issues for the Cubs once MLB lifts its lockout and finalizes a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association is the future of Contreras.

Contreras batted a career-low .237 with a career-high 138 strikeouts in 2021. But his eight backups batted a combined .186 with five home runs and 13 RBIs in 183 at-bats.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The addition of Gomes, 34, actually could give Contreras a lift as well as improve the quality at the position.

The implementation of the designated hitter in the NL, which is expected to be included as part of the next CBA, would allow the Cubs to keep Contreras fresh while keeping his power in the lineup.

There are no guarantees that rookie sensation Frank Schwindel can duplicate his impressive two-month stint, so Contreras provides an option as a backup at first base.

Third baseman Patrick Wisdom made 13 appearances at first base, and he also played 15 games in left field. The latter stat has some significance, especially if the Cubs elect to upgrade at third base.

Ultimately, Contreras' future will be decided by money. The Cubs' budget provides more elasticity even after signing pitcher Marcus Stroman and Gomes. Contreras is projected to earn $8.7 million in 2022, according to MLBTraderumors.com, an affordable salary for his value to the Cubs.

Contreras won't come close to matching Realmuto's annual average value even when he becomes a free agent, but he's in a good position despite a subpar 2021 offensive season. The Cubs loaded up on catching prospects in 2019 by signing international free agents Ronnier Quintero and Brayan Altuve to bonuses worth nearly $4 million and buying sixth-round pick Ethan Hearn out of his commitment to Mississippi State for a $950,000 bonus.

But Hearn isn't projected to reach the majors until 2024 and Quintero in 2025, according to FanGraphs. That fuels more concern over a position where its projected major league depth took a hit when top catching prospect Miguel Amaya, 22, underwent Tommy John surgery on his right throwing arm Nov. 30 and will have his playing time curtailed for a third consecutive season.

The signing of a catcher with Gomes' experience was important. Trading Contreras for prospects could address several positions, but it wouldn't guarantee the long-term assurances Contreras provides in multiple areas.

@MDGonzales

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