Despite gutting their roster at last year’s deadline, the Chicago Cubs “have the resources necessary to compete in 2022 and beyond,” and will use them, according to Tom Ricketts.
While the signings of Marcus Stroman and Seiya Suzuki have gone some way to fulfilling that commitment, Cubs fans the world over are still wondering why a team intent on competing this season hasn’t yet extended Willson Contreras.
He is one of the few remaining survivors of the World Series-winning team of 2016 and has been with the organisation his entire career. What’s more, the newly-arrived Stroman, who undoubtedly wants to win, paid him the ultimate compliment recently, saying, “He is this organisation,” which underlines just how influential he has been and continues to be for the Cubs.
So why no extension? Well, as Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic pointed out earlier this month, there is a practical element involved. The “99-day lockout kept the Cubs from engaging Contreras and his agent,” he wrote. “The Cubs have a lot of holes to fill on their roster, so adding free agents and making trades are probably of more paramount importance than anything else right now.”
While the impact of the lockout cannot be overlooked, if the Cubs were intent on locking Contreras up they would have reached out by now. Contreras said when he arrived at camp that he isn’t interested in discussing an extension once the season begins, which, coupled with the arbitration misalignment the two parties experienced recently, means he could already be as good as gone.
This despite the fact that he’s frequently mentioned in conversations about the top 10 catchers in the league, has a cannon of an arm and ranks 99th overall on the all-time catcher JAWS leader list. This recognition is a testament to the work he’s done to overcome his pitch framing difficulties to go from being the second-worst catcher in baseball with a minus-15 CDA in 2018 to the eighth-best in 2021 with a significantly better 3.4 CDA.
As a hitter, he’s always been streaky and although his batting average has never exceeded the .282 he recorded in his rookie year, he did notch 21 homers and 57 RBI last season while recording a 109 wRC+, the fourth-most walks amongst catchers (52) and a career-best 4.1 WAR.
As Michael Simione pointed out in his recent piece on catchers, “only [Mike] Zunino had a higher max exit velocity than Willson Contreras, who had a 115.4 Max EV” last year. “Not only does the Max EV call for the potential for more power but so does his EV/FBLD,” he continues. “He was third overall in the category for catchers and less than one mile per hour behind Salvador Perez“.
Given his penchant for power, Contreras makes sense on a roster currently lacking in it. Of last year’s survivors, only Patrick Wisdom and Ian Happ made a comparable amount of plate appearances while also surpassing Contreras’s .201 ISO, posting .287 and .209 respectively.
Contreras is not without his flaws though and recorded the second-most strikeouts among catchers (138), a career-worst batting average (.237) and a less than impressive .778 OPS in 2021.
Since then, the Cubs have added Yan Gomes, who was, in theory, signed to ensure Contreras gets a little more rest this year. That said, he’s a useful hitter and, as Luke Hooper observed on FanGraphs recently, is coming off five straight seasons with a wRC+ of 80 or higher while also notching a 96 wRC+ over the past two years.
As Luke points out: “He’s been able to improve as a hitter by swinging and missing less, which has dropped his K% to better than average over each of the last two years. The improvement hasn’t come at the cost of power either, as he has a slightly above-average isolated slugging and is coming off of a career-high barrel rate of 8.8% (7.9% is average).”
Gomes’ signing prompted Contreras to tweet a bunch of plane emojis from his since deleted Twitter account, which is perhaps unsurprising given that the veteran is likely there to drive up his counterpart’s value by giving him the rest he needs to perform at a higher clip.
Even so, Contreras’s projections for 2022 have him performing at about the same level as he did last year:
And given Jed Hoyer’s desire to find short-term value while maintaining financial flexibility, it would be a surprise to see him hand a lengthy extension to a catcher with an injury history whose numbers may already be in decline. Not least because the Cubs are still some way from where they want to be. As of this week, the PECOTA STANDINGS have them winning 72.2 games while finishing fourth in the NL Central. If Contreras does have a breakout year, he will most likely be flipped for pieces more closely aligned with the long-term outlook of the team, with the Yankees and Padres already keeping tabs on his availability.
However, it is important to remember that trade returns on starting catchers are often limited mid-season, given the risks involved in having them learn to work with an entirely new pitching staff on the hop. With this in mind, the Cubs seem most likely to wait and see what kind of team they are in 2022 before making a decision on Contreras closer to the deadline.
And yet, given their lack of depth at the catcher position, the injury woes of Miguel Amaya and the limited options in next year’s free-agent class, not to mention their alleged desire to compete in 2022 and Contreras’s influence both on the diamond and in the clubhouse, extending him seems like a no brainer. He is, in many ways the beating heart of the Cubs and exactly the kind of player and personality teams need in their locker rooms while negotiating a rebuild.
Photo by Brad Mangin/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images
Sean is one of the Bat Flips & Nerds’ Chicago Cubs correspondents for the 2022 season. You can follow him on Twitter @SW_Guest