What’s Market Value for Willson Contreras and Are Cubs Manipulating It?

This is the second straight season in which the Cubs’ poor performance has guided the conversation away from actual games and toward the trade deadline and which star(s) will be departing. Willson Contreras has long been the biggest and most obvious option, what with his expiring contract and elite offensive production at a premium position, but the talk has gained weight in the wake of his recent salary settlement.

Contreras and the Cubs settled on a figure of $9.625 million for the 2022 season, midway between where each party had filed, offering the slightest hope that the sides might yet be able to work out an extension. However, there have been no serious overtures to this point, at least not publicly, and there’s a balancing act between the deadline and the Cubs’ target for being competitive once again.

If the latter falls more than a year after the former, Contreras is as good as gone. Some of that has to do with the team’s resultant strategy, as building around a catcher who’ll be entering his age-32 season in ’24 might not be the wisest plan. But that catcher also needs to believe he’s going to have help coming soon, and just with more rookies.

Even with Christopher Morel continuing his role as the Energizer Bunny, the Cubs need to find stronger batteries and more powerful bats in free agency.

“I want to compete for a playoff spot, and I want to compete for a World Series shot again,” Contreras told the Sun-Times. “And I think for this team to get to the World Series again, it’s going to take the front office putting a lot more pieces together.”

The best way to make that happen is by spending money, something the Cubs simply haven’t done enough of over the last few years. Spare me the tired trope about their previous rankings among the top payrolls in baseball, they’re in the middle of the pack now and haven’t even tried to spend on a winner for several years. For example, the $13 million deal for Yan Gomes was the largest the team had given to a position player since Jason Heyward.

Seiya Suzuki eclipsed that easily and the Cubs signed Marcus Stroman to what appeared to be a very intelligent deal, but those additions weren’t nearly enough. Let’s get back to Gomes, though, as many believed his deal was a harbinger of doom for Contreras’s future. While it may certainly appear that way in hindsight, it was really a very shrewd insurance policy that allowed the Cubs to inflate their starter’s value in one sense while potentially harming it in another.

“The team knows who they have,” Contreras said, “and they know what type of person they have in the clubhouse and behind and behind the plate. And they know everything about me.”

Yes, indeed they do. The Cubs knew heading into the offseason that they’d need to find a way to give Contreras more rest in order to keep his offensive numbers up all season long. Both Jed Hoyer and David Ross spoke publicly about that, so the Gomes signing was just following through on the plan. It was also a way to ensure they had a legitimate option should Contreras be traded, but there may have been another wrinkle here.

Heading into Friday’s game against the Yankees, Contreras boasts a 162 wRC+ and 2.2 fWAR, both of which lead all MLB catchers. But even with Gomes spending significant time on the IL, Contreras ranks just 17th in baseball with 286 innings caught after being in the top 10 each of the past two seasons. A hamstring injury forced him to miss a month late in the 2019 season, the last time he finished as low as 17th in innings caught.

The Cubs obviously want to keep his bat in the lineup, so Contreras has logged 56 plate appearances in 13 games as the designated hitter. He is batting a very robust .347 with a 1.102 OPS, a 203 wRC+, and four of his 10 homers in a sample that represents a little over a quarter of his total PAs. I’m not saying this is what’s going to happen or that it’s what they planned, but the front office could easily point to the numbers as a way to suppress the value of an extension.

After all, a DH who can rake isn’t worth nearly as much as the most elite offensive catcher in baseball. Contreras isn’t necessarily an elite defender either, and his specific skills — which are based highly on his athletic ability — aren’t likely to improve with age. That means he’s likely to see more time as a DH in the future, further lightening a potential extension offer.

But back to that quote from earlier, the one about the Cubs knowing what he means to the team. Contreras should be worth more to the Cubs because of his leadership role and the continuity he offers during what is supposed to be a transition back into playing better baseball. It’s just a matter of whether the Cubs are willing to offer enough to get Contreras to listen and whether he’s willing to come down a little from what is presumed to be an asking price of $100 million or more.

While $24 million AAV is nothing to sneeze at, some believe Contreras will target the five-year, $115.5 million deal J.T. Realmuto got from the Phillies in prior to the 2021 season. Thing is, that was ahead of Realmuto’s age-30 season and Contreras will be a year older than that in ’23. A more realistic bar is the four-year, $82 million contract Salvador Perez got from the Royals prior to his age-32 season this year.

A $96 million deal would be almost halfway between the total values of those above and the AAV would exceed both. Maybe there’s a fifth-year vesting option with a buyout or something along those lines to sweeten the pot. Contreras gets security and the AAV record for a catcher while the Cubs limit their long-term exposure at what is still a reasonable cost.

The final note I’ll make here is that Contreras has called the possibility of testing his worth in free agency a “dream come true.” That’s more about just realizing a milestone in a lifelong journey, but it can’t be overlooked when it comes to his desire to haggle over figures with a Cubs team that has shown no willingness to move off its bargaining positions with franchise icons.

I still feel like a trade is inevitable, though I feel better about the potential for extending Contreras than I did with any of the big three last year. We’re only talking like fractions of a percentage point better, though, so that’s not really saying much.

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