CHICAGO — Before the Aug. 2 trade deadline, the goodbyes and tributes for Willson Contreras seemed to occur almost daily. The cheers and tears were heartfelt and voluminous, curtain calls for one of the last Cubs remaining from the 2016 championship team.
But in the end, Contreras remained with the Cubs, who could not find an offer to meet their demands. It meant that his departure was delayed by a few months, at least — but it also was the first sign that the conditions developing around Contreras and his impending free agency might well extend his time with the team into 2023 and beyond.
The broad assumption within the industry is that Contreras, 30, will be given a qualifying offer by the Cubs this offseason, which means his free agency will be anchored to draft-pick compensation — an antiquated part of the economic system that many agents had hoped would be negotiated out of the game in the most recent collective bargaining agreement.
The owners had tied the elimination of the qualifying offer and draft-pick compensation to an agreement on the international draft, and without an agreement by the July 25 deadline, the old system remains. As a result, a handful of players could see the bidding for their services stunted in free agency, Contreras perhaps more than any other.
“There’s no doubt, he would do way better without [being attached] to the [draft] pick,” one evaluator said last week.
The perception within the Cubs’ organization is that Contreras was looking for a deal in the range of the five-year, $115.5 million contract J.T. Realmuto signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in the spring of 2021. But the events at the trade deadline might have been a preview of teams’ interest in Contreras this winter.
It won’t help that the catcher has really struggled since the trade deadline, batting .221 with a .287 OBP in 21 games — albeit with seven homers in 87 plate appearances — or that because of left ankle issues, he has not played since Aug. 30. The Cubs do expect him to play again this season, but regardless of whether he returns to the field in 2022, he won’t have an opportunity to change the circumstances of his free agency.
The Cubs — likely anticipating that they could receive draft-pick compensation for Contreras this offseason, even if he leaves — set a high price at the trade deadline for the catcher, who is regarded as one of the best offensive players at his position. Contreras has a career .809 OPS, with an OPS+ of 127 in 2022.
But some rival executives with contending teams were wary of attempting to introduce a new everyday catcher to their pitching staffs in the midst of the ’22 season, especially given the perception that Contreras is an offense-first catcher. There are evaluators who don’t believe Contreras has connected as well with his pitchers as someone like the Astros’ Martin Maldonado, or even Orioles rookie Adley Rutschman. Contreras has a great bat and a powerful throwing arm, but scouts’ grades on his handling of pitchers are not good.
“It’s not about his effort, and it’s not that he doesn’t care,” said one evaluator. “It’s just not something he does well.”
So even the teams that theoretically could’ve used an upgrade at catcher — the Mets and the Astros among them — passed on Contreras at the deadline.
Now, shortly after the conclusion of the World Series, the Cubs are expected to present the qualifying offer to Contreras, a one-year deal somewhere in the range of $18 million to $19 million. If Contreras signs with a team other than the Cubs, that club would have to surrender at least one draft pick and perhaps some international signing money.
For an elite free agent like Aaron Judge or Trea Turner, that wouldn’t be a mitigating factor in the market. But for Contreras, that might mean a smaller field of teams that would consider signing him — and also have some impact on the offers he does receive. Additionally, Contreras likely won’t be helped by the fact that the last two big catcher contracts signed — by Realmuto and Yasmani Grandal (four years, $73.5 million, with the White Sox) — have not worked out for the signing teams so far.
Two factors might work in Contreras’ favor. First, teams are generally flush with spending money in the years that immediately follow the signing of a new collective bargaining agreement, so money might rain — on Judge, Turner and other free agents, including Contreras. And despite some of the reservations about his playcalling, Contreras is still viewed as the best option in what is perceived to be a weak group of free agent catchers.
Even if his market doesn’t develop, Contreras can accept the QO, return to the Cubs, and follow the same strategy Grandal did with the Milwaukee Brewers before the 2019 season: betting on himself on a one-year deal before hitting free agency again in the fall of 2023 (a team can only use the qualifying offer on a player once).
But rival evaluators also believe Contreras might wind up returning to the Cubs on a multiyear deal, if one emerges at a range the Cubs find more acceptable. On Saturday, owner Tom Ricketts indicated the Cubs — whose payroll has been slashed dramatically over the last two years — will spend this winter, with club president Jed Hoyer making personnel choices.
“The ball’s in Jed’s court when it comes to how and where he puts financial resources to work,” Ricketts said. “He’s got a lot of flexibility, so we’ll let him do it. Let him decide what he wants to do.”
Whether that will include pursuing a player who was part of the dogpile when the Cubs won their first World Series in 108 seasons is yet to be seen.
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