One of the more infuriating offseason facts of Cubs fandom over the last few years has been the front offices’ absolute refusal to sign a multi-year free agent deal with a position player. It was all about flexibility, you see. Team control was running out on the core, and the Cubs needed to always be prepared to sell if they weren’t competitive at the deadline.
The last non-pitcher the Cubs inked for more than a year was Daniel Descalso, who the team signed for two years and $5 million, with a team option for 2021. We all know how that worked out. Finally, 1,078 days after that deal with Descalso, the Cubs have a multi-year deal with Yan Gomes, who they signed to be their (backup?) catcher Tuesday:
Catcher Yan Gomes and the Chicago Cubs are in agreement on a two-year, $13 million contract, sources familiar with the deal tell ESPN. @CraigMish was on the news.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 30, 2021
I appreciate all of you who reached out with concern about my well-being. I’ll have a lot more to say about how I think this impacts Willson Contreras’ future with the Cubs below, but first let’s take a minute to appreciate that Gomes was the best free agent catcher available, according to MLB Trade Rumors. Admittedly, the best free agent catcher this year ranked 49th overall. It’s a weak free agent class for catchers. But the Cubs absolutely need help here. The 2021 team rostered a franchise-record eight different backup catchers after they decided to trade former backup Victor Caratini along with Yu Darvish.
Gomes is a 34-year-old catcher who was projected for 399 plate appearances when I started writing this piece. By the time I was editing it FanGraphs had downgraded that projection to 203 plate appearances in light of his reduced role with the Cubs. Gomes is still listed as a free agent, so that number could, theoretically, go down more. In 2021 Gomes put up a .252/.301/.421 line with a below average wRC+ of 93. Those numbers are almost identical to his career .249/.299/.421 slash with a wRC+ of 91.
Gomes’ playing time projection is likely to decline in a backup role. However, as many noted in yesterday’s thread, two-years $13 million is relatively expensive for a backup catcher. That is likely because he’s going to catch more innings than a pure backup. And this is the crux for the Cubs, because Gomes theoretically can take on more innings, if necessary, which provides the Cubs a lot more flexibility as they decide if they want to negotiate an extension with Contreras, who will be a free agent at the end of the 2022 season. Reports from the Cubs front office indicate that, at least for now, they want the two to share catching duties and moving Contreras is not inevitable, as Patrick Mooney writes for The Athletic:
Though the Cubs trading Contreras is an obvious possibility at some point in the future, the team offered Gomes an opportunity to share the workload with Contreras in a role that would be more than a traditional backup catcher, according to sources familiar with the negotiations. The Cubs cycled through eight backup catchers last season, putting too much stress on Contreras’ body and sapping his offensive production. The Cubs expect 2022 to be the first season of the full-time designated hitter in the National League and a recovery year for top catching prospect Miguel Amaya after Tommy John surgery.
Russ Dorsey of the Chicago Sun-Times added this about Contreras’ workload and the Cubs’ desire to make sure he had more time off in 2022:
This was #Cubs catcher Willson Contreras on the last day of the season discussing the team watching his workload in ‘22. Universal DH is likely headed to the NL next season. Just some things to ponder after the Yan Gomes move. pic.twitter.com/jOB4AWQg8b— Russell Dorsey (@Russ_Dorsey1) November 30, 2021
So let’s take a closer look at Gomes. Since he’ll “share the workload” with Contreras with the bonus of being able to take over that position should the Cubs and Willson fail to agree to terms before the July 31 trade deadline, large parts of this will be comparative.
The bats (and WAR)
Contreras is a better hitter than Gomes but honestly, Gomes is a better hitter than pretty much everyone the Cubs used in the backup catcher role last season with the exception of Robinson Chirinos. Chirinos was held to about half the playing time Steamer projects Gomes to have with the Cubs. You can do some comparisons below.
Gomes and Contreras Key Stats and Projections
|Gomes 2022 Proj||203||7||.249||.306||.420||6.5%||21.7%||.289||.310||91||0.7|
|Contreras 2022 Proj||468||19||.239||.334||.430||10.0%||26.7%||.296||.332||105||2.1|
Gomes has a higher batting average than Willson, he also strikes out less, but that’s about it. Willson gets on base more than Gomes, has a higher walk rate and better power. Willson also had a wRC+ in 2021 that was 16 points higher than Gomes. wRC+ is particularly useful here because it’s weighted to even out playing time and park effects. In 2021, Willson was 16 percent better at run creation than Gomes. Over their career, that gap is even more stark, with Willson’s career wRC+ of 114 coming in 23 percent higher than Gomes.
I understand that WAR includes defense and for catchers this involves some framing metrics that we are definitely going to hash out below, but I included it here to consolidate tables a bit. It is worth noting, that Gomes put up a 4.3 WAR season in 2013 and followed it up with a 5.1 WAR campaign in 2014. Those two seasons account for more than 58 percent of his total career WAR. The remaining 6.7 WAR has been spread over his his other eight seasons. Contreras has more consistently put up at least 2 WAR, but not more than three WAR per season. The two exceptions are a 0.7 WAR in a down year in 2018 and 1.6 WAR in the pandemic-shortened season that would equate to 4.3 WAR projected over a 162-game season. That 2020 number is interesting, because it was built on improved framing and a lot more at bats due to the universal designated hitter. Incidentally, the DH could come to the National League after the next Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations conclude.
It’s not a platoon
In an ideal world Gomes would be awesome against lefties and Willson would be awesome against righties and the Cubs would know exactly how to deploy their two-headed catching monster.
This is not an ideal world and both Gomes and Contreras hit right-handed. They both hit left-handed pitching better than right-handed pitching, although Willson’s career splits are less pronounced than Gomes’ splits. You can see their 2021 and career splits below:
Gomes and Contreras Handedness Splits
|Gomes v. L 2021||125||7||.314||.328||.562||1.6%||20.0%||.344||.373||136|
|Contreras v. L 2021||132||8||.284||.356||.534||10.6%||25.0%||.325||.373||132|
|Gomes v. R 2021||250||7||.219||.288||.346||6.8%||21.2%||.256||.275||71|
|Contreras v. R 2021||351||13||.219||.333||.401||10.8%||29.9%||.287||.324||100|
|Gomes v. L Career||989||41||.283||.335||.489||6.5%||23.0%||.331||.351||120|
|Contreras v. L Career||612||26||.277||.368||.499||11.8%||23.2%||.332||.367||128|
|Gomes v. R Career||2285||76||.232||.283||.393||5.3%||24.8%||.278||.291||79|
|Contreras v. R Career||1760||69||.253||.342||.444||9.2%||25.1%||.308||.339||110|
I think the most stunning part of these numbers was realizing that Gomes, who walks only slightly more than Javier Báez, had an abysmal 1.6 percent BB rate against lefties in 2021. That is two walks over 125 plate appearances. Once I got over that, the biggest trend in these numbers is that Willson is a slightly better hitter in almost every circumstance than Gomes, except for their lefty power splits in 2021. That appears to be an outlier for Gomes, but will present a conundrum for manager David Ross.
Contreras has always hit lefties better than righties but Gomes has a career wRC+ of 79 against right-handed pitching. Starting him against right-handed pitchers will put a bat in the lineup that is roughly equivalent to the fourth and fifth worst qualified hitters by wRC+ in 2021 (Raimel Tapia and Michael A. Taylor, if you were wondering). However, if Ross plays Gomes exclusively against southpaws, relying on Willson’s more even bat against the more prevalent right-handed pitchers, he’s setting up Willson for one of the worst years of his career. Here, the Cubs desire for flexibility at the trade deadline may intervene to save Contreras’ plate appearances against lefties. The Cubs will not get a very good return if Contreras is forced to platoon on his weak side to make way for a player with more volatile splits.
With all the talk over the years about Contreras’ need to improve his framing, most people probably think this trade is an attempt to improve defensively. That would be wrong. According to Statcast Gomes was in the 22nd percentile in framing last season, Contreras was in the 67th percentile in 2021. You can compare those, and offensive Statcast metrics for yourself below. First up is Gomes:
Next up is Contreras:
Yes, I too noted that this is a crush for Contreras on almost every stat except Whiff and K percentage, but it also demonstrates pretty clearly this isn’t a framing thing. It’s just a bring a better than the waiver wire guy on to be there thing, which I’ll talk more about in a second.
Statcast also has some older (no 2020 or 2021) pop time and transfer data. Contreras and Gomes were within hundredths of seconds of each other in 2019. What is really cool in my opinion is this fielding data that shows each catcher’s ability to make plays off the bat. Gomes and Conteras wind up remarkably similar here, with both rarely making five-star plays but consistently making three-star plays. First up is Gomes for 2019 and 2020:
My read of this is that Gomes and Conteras are remarkably similar defenders, with Willson being a much better framer. I honestly never thought I’d get to write those words.
Gomes was the best catcher available in a weak free agent class for catchers. Who am I trying to kid, the whole league is weak on offensive catchers. That fact goes a long way towards why Salvador Pérez and J.T. Realmuto were both extended by their teams. With the news that Miguel Amaya needs Tommy John surgery, the Cubs needed an option other than Contreras. By scooping up the best available catcher for not a ton of money they ensured a steady state of production at backstop for the start of the season...and an insurance policy for themselves if they can’t negotiate an extension with Contreras.
Gomes is not as good a catcher as Contreras, but he is a good enough catcher to do a one-third split of playing time rather than a one-quarter split. Contreras’ best seasons have always happened when he’s been able to get out from behind the plate sometimes to just hit or rest. If by some miracle this front office finally manages to extend Contreras, he will be a better player this year and in the future if he gets more rest now. If they fail to extend him, well, the drop off to Gomes is a lot shorter than the drop off to whoever would be on the waiver wire in July.
Oh, and as luck would have it, by signing Gomes they took that option away from a team who was looking to upgrade at catcher this offseason. If the Cubs do manage to extend Contreras, Gomes could be one of the best catchers available at the trade deadline.
Gomes may be an expensive backup catching option, but he’s a remarkably affordable guy to create the type of flexibility the Cubs want as they head into the final season of Contreras’ contract.