Willson Contreras is officially a free agent and he will reportedly decline the Cubs’ qualifying offer, leaving major holes behind the plate and in the lineup that need to be filled. Contreras was also a leader in the clubhouse and one of the longest-tenured players on the roster, so it figures that the front office would look to add a seasoned veteran to assume some of those responsibilities.
MLB Trade Rumors had Contreras at the top of their free agent catcher class heading into this offseason, but several other available backstops might fit what they’re looking for as they head in a new direction. Those names include Omar Narváez, Tucker Barnhart, Austin Hedges, Gary Sánchez, and Christian Vázquez. All those players could be viable replacements for the Cubs, so let’s see how they all stack up to Contreras.
The table below shows MLBTR’s top free agent catchers and how many potential runs they prevented by framing pitches. As you can see, Nárvaez is at the top with six runs saved while Contreras is close to the bottom with zero. Narváez also had the highest strike rate, converting nearly 50% of non-swing pitches into strikes in 2022. Austin Hedges converted 48.9% while Contreras only converted 46% of those pitches.
If the Cubs decide to prioritize a defensive catcher, Hedges and Narváez seem like the best fits. An important thing to note about these rankings, however, is that they don’t factor in umpire quirks. Umpires are going to have different strike zones, sometimes depending on the day, which can greatly affect the catcher’s ability to frame pitches.
Framing pitches isn’t all catchers have to do, though. They also have to manage opposing runners on base and one of the ways they can do this is by having a fast pop time, or how long it takes them from receiving a pitch to completing a throw down to a base. A strong-armed catcher with a fast exchange time will make opposing teams think twice before attempting to steal.
Sánchez and Contreras have the strongest arms out of this year’s class and both have similar exchange times, though it’s interesting that both are relatively slow in that regard. Vázquez gets the ball out of his hand the fastest while Sánchez is the slowest, but they both have the same pop times when they’ve thrown runners out. This is because Sánchez’s stronger arm makes up for what he lack in quickness. Nárvaez is at the bottom of the arm strength category and has the slowest pop time out of all the catchers available this year.
When it comes to offense, however, Contreras is going to be very difficult to replace. Sánchez is the only other free-agent catcher that hit the ball harder and had a higher expected slugging percentage than Contreras. A team that already lacked power and has expressed a need to improve in that category is clearly going to need to find more of it elsewhere.
The Cubs front office has an important decision to make when it comes to replacing their All-Star catcher. If they bring in a free agent, they’re going to want someone with solid experience. Sánchez played for the Yankees at the start of his career and the lights don’t get any brighter than in the Bronx while Vázquez just won a World Series with the Astros after spending time in Boston. Hedges has proven to be a solid defensive catcher, but he doesn’t provide much offense. If they want to platoon a new catcher with Yan Gomes, going for a more defensive-minded catcher like Hedges or Narváez would be the best option.
Replacing Contreras’s offensive capabilities should take priority when making a run at some of these players. Sánchez and Vázquez have the best bats out of this group and both of them have extensive experience that could be beneficial to a young team. Identifying the best fit, whether it’s from this group or somewhere else, will be a priority for Jed Hoyer this winter.