The Cubs are at a crossroads this winter. The team is clearly in decline from its 2016 heights, but they are still very good and in more of a need of a shakeup rather than a teardown and rebuild. There were several holes in the Cubs lineup this past year, most notably in the outfield, second base and the bullpen.
But there is still a core of talent there that can can compete for a World Series title in 2020. Unfortunately, fixing the team’s problems is not going to be that easy. The Cubs’ minor league system has been greatly diminished by trades and low draft picks over the past few seasons. There’s also that pesky problem the team has struggled to develop any pitching from the minors. That makes it hard to fix the problems through a trade. The free agent market at the positions the Cubs need to fill is weak, which is why they’ve been looking to the other side of the Pacific for possible help.
A major trade, if the Cubs make one, is likely going to involve a major league player. The Cubs want to get younger, not older, so trading any of the top minor league prospects seems counterproductive. And the most logical major league player to trade, and the one that would bring back the best return, is catcher Willson Contreras.
There are several reasons why a trade of Contreras makes sense. The Cubs have several players approaching free agency and Contreras is one of them. But the front office has to consider signing Javier Baez and Kris Bryant to be much higher on the priority list than Contreras. Even the big extension that Anthony Rizzo signed many years ago is running out after the 2021 season. I don’t want to say the money isn’t going to be there for Contreras, but management will likely need to find some ways to cut the budget if they sign all these players to new contracts.
It’s also not all that obvious that the Cubs should sign Contreras to an extension. The Cubs have three more years of control on Contreras and by the time he’s a free agent after the 2022 season, he’ll be 31. Some catchers can play effectively into their late 30s, but a lot of them lose it quickly at that age, either because of injuries or just accumulated wear and tear. Even a future Hall-of-Famer like Buster Posey, who just turned 32, is looking like a shadow of his former self these days.
On top of that, the Cubs are clearly frustrated with Contreras’ limitations as a pitch framer. Yes, there is more to catching that just stealing strikes, but Contreras has been one of the worst pitch framers in the majors over the past few seasons. The Cubs have tried to help him, but they just haven’t seen him improve. On the other hand, Contreras’ backup Victor Caratini is an above-average pitch framer.
On July 3 of last season, Caratini took over as the personal catcher for Yu Darvish. Darvish was one of the best pitchers in the National League in the second half of 2019. That wasn’t a coincidence. To be sure, much of Darvish’s improvement had to do with him being fully healthy and some adjustments the Cubs’ coaching staff made. But it would be foolish to say that working with Caratini instead of Contreras didn’t play a role. The Cubs clearly believe that Caratini is better at working with the pitching staff than Contreras is.
On top of that, Miguel Amaya is the Cubs’ catcher of the future. The 20-year-old just finished a successful season at High-A Myrtle Beach. On offense, he looks to have just as much power as Contreras and while he may not hit for as high a batting average, Amaya’s ability to draw a walk counteracts that somewhat. His defense is still a bit raw, but projects to be above-average on the major league level.
But where Amaya really shines is in his role as a pitch-framer and a handler of a pitching staff. Pitchers reportedly love throwing to Amaya. He’s considered a team leader already at a young age. And to answer another question, he now speaks English quite well.
Amaya is not going to be ready to take over as the Cubs starting catcher for the 2020 season. But in Victor Caratini, the Cubs have someone who can hold down the fort until Amaya is ready.
But if Contreras can’t become a free agent for three more seasons, why trade him now? Because with three years of control, his value will never be higher than it is right now. The biggest reason the Cubs were willing to give up Eloy Jimenez to get José Quintana is that Quintana was signed to a team-friendly extension for the next 3½ years. Mookie Betts is a superstar whom the Red Sox may trade this winter, but most observers think they won’t get much for only one year of control. The Orioles got very little for two-and-a-half months of Manny Machado. The Dodgers traded Yasiel Puig, coming off seasons with a WAR of 3.8 and 2.7 but with only one more year until free agency, for the Reds taking on some bad contracts. (Yes, Puig has some other baggage that reduced his value.)
Right now, there simply are more teams in need of a catcher than there are catchers available. The Rays, Astros and Athletics are all 2019 playoff teams for whom Contreras would all be an upgrade behind the plate. The Braves as well, although they just signed Travis d’Arnaud to a free agent deal. Still, d’Arnaud has been a backup catcher before. The Brewers need a catcher, but I’m having trouble seeing that deal get made, especially with the Brewers poor farm system.
Teams like the Padres, Rangers and Angels will likely be shooting for the playoffs in 2020 and could use a catcher like Contreras. A reunion with Joe Maddon in Anaheim is something that has been speculated about.
In all of those cases, the Cubs could expect to get a top prospect and/or a young, controllable major league player for Contreras. I don’t want to speculate a lot on names, but I will say the Cubs would not get back top prospects like the Angels’ Jo Adell or the Rays’ Wander Franco. Anyone below that would likely be considered. If the Cubs want immediate help instead of prospects, they could ask the Royals which prospects on other teams they’d take for Whit Merrifield or the Pirates what they might want for Starling Marté.
Now this isn’t to say the Cubs must trade Contreras. That’s why it makes sense to try to make a deal now—the front office can just walk away from any deal that doesn’t make the team better. It’s better to try to make a deal now when the Cubs don’t need to just take the best offer available. The Cubs will never have more leverage than right now in trading Contreras, which is why it’s the right thing to do.
I understand that Contreras is a popular Cubs player who was an important member of the 2016 World Champion team. But I also understand that Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins and Ron Santo all got traded eventually, and in all three of those cases it was a few years too late.
Trading Willson Contreras this winter could very well be the shakeup that the Cubs’ front office thinks the team needs this winter. Additionally, catcher is the one position where the Cubs have players who could step into the starting role for the next few years without costing the team much or anything. By dealing Contreras, the Cubs could bring back a player or two who could bring a fourth World Series title to the franchise.
Should the Cubs trade Willson Contreras?
This poll is closed
Yes, if the price is right.
No, they’ll never get fair value back.