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The Cubs should extend Willson Contreras

It would be malpractice to trade away one of the best hitting catchers in MLB

Contreras celebrates his 100th career home run, a grand slam in the first inning on Monday night vs. the Pirates
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Monday, Willson Contreras got his 100th home run when he came to the plate for the second time in the first inning and sent a no-doubt grand slam to the left field bleachers to give the Cubs an 8-0 lead. It was reminiscent of his first at bat at Wrigley Field when he sent the first MLB pitch he saw into the center field bleachers. Contreras was even more animated than usual as he circled the bases, and he was overcome with joy in the dugout. Cubs fans were also overjoyed. Let’s watch it again [VIDEO].

David Ross was thrilled for his backstop and former teammate in his post-game remarks, but some of Ross’ remarks were edited out of the postgame link above. Specifically, Ross was asked the obvious question about a Contreras extension before awkwardly pivoting away from the elephant that has been in the room since well before last July: Why haven’t the Cubs extended Willson Contreras?

If Ross has an answer for that question he’s keeping it to himself, as are all of the Cubs front office types. Savvy Cubs fans all around the country are bracing themselves to say goodbye to the heart of this current team, and one of the only remaining 2016 World Series winners, as soon as Jed Hoyer and company can find a suitable trade partner. However, before they do that it is worth noting they don’t have to trade Contreras. Today, I wanted to outline the reasons the Cubs would do well to extend their two-time starting All Star catcher.

Catching depth league-wide

It’s not news that catchers who can hit are a rare breed in MLB, but perhaps you might be surprised to learn how rare they are. To do this I ran the numbers for all qualified catchers who had a wRC+ over 100 since 2016. As a reminder, wRC+ is a park and league adjusted stat that has a baseline of 100 for league average. Every number over league average is the percentage better that particular hitter is at run creation. Below is every qualified catcher with a wRC+ of 100 or better since 2016:

Qualified Catchers Ranked by wRC+ 2016-2022

Name Team G PA HR BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Name Team G PA HR BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Yasmani Grandal - - - 717 2778 134 15.10% 24.20% .224 .271 .237 .354 .461 .351 121 25.0
Mitch Garver - - - 332 1159 56 10.70% 26.10% .230 .301 .252 .338 .482 .348 120 6.4
Willson Contreras CHC 650 2498 100 9.90% 24.30% .200 .315 .260 .351 .461 .349 117 13.2
Buster Posey SFG 618 2529 56 10.30% 13.60% .139 .321 .291 .367 .430 .343 115 20.4
Gary Sanchez - - - 561 2294 141 9.90% 26.60% .255 .253 .229 .317 .484 .339 114 13.2
J.T. Realmuto - - - 759 3106 104 7.00% 20.60% .180 .323 .277 .336 .457 .338 112 23.8
Wilson Ramos - - - 536 2005 75 7.00% 16.50% .169 .308 .283 .334 .452 .334 110 7.4
Evan Gattis HOU 340 1275 69 7.40% 21.80% .230 .260 .245 .304 .475 .328 109 4.4
Omar Narvaez - - - 539 1874 49 10.80% 19.20% .133 .312 .266 .352 .399 .328 106 8.5
Salvador Perez KCR 628 2549 141 3.60% 22.10% .229 .280 .258 .295 .487 .329 106 7.4
Francisco Cervelli - - - 350 1323 24 12.10% 20.90% .124 .311 .252 .359 .375 .326 103 5.9
Tyler Flowers ATL 371 1381 40 9.70% 28.10% .156 .336 .251 .349 .408 .330 102 11.8
Robinson Chirinos - - - 468 1618 67 10.50% 29.10% .204 .286 .225 .332 .429 .330 102 3.5
Alex Avila - - - 369 1193 39 17.00% 34.80% .169 .325 .215 .353 .384 .324 100 4.5
Kurt Suzuki - - - 494 1799 65 5.80% 13.30% .177 .267 .260 .322 .437 .325 100 2.8
Select offensive stats, Italics indicate retired players FanGraphs

Since 2016, the year Contreras joined the Cubs, he’s been the third best hitting catcher in MLB by wRC+. There are only 15 catchers over that time period who were able to sustain a wRC+ of at least 100. Six of those catchers have retired at some point in the last couple of seasons, so really, there are nine total catchers in baseball who have qualified for this leaderboard and maintained at least a league average bat at driving in runs.

Some quick back of the envelope math shows there are 30 teams each of whom generally carry two catchers. In other words, at any given point in time MLB teams collectively employ around 60 catchers, nine of whom provide league average run production. That is 15 percent of catchers at any given point in time, but when you consider injuries, replacements, and other call ups (remember the Cubs had eight different backups for Contreras last year) that percentage is much, much smaller.

Automatic strike zone and the DH

Willson Contreras has improved his framing notably in his time in the league. In 2021 he was in the 67th percentile of all catchers for framing, that number is down considerably this season at 12th percentile, but it is a small sample size at the moment. However, two developments make any concerns about Contreras’ framing ability as a catcher non-issues in the very near future.

First, is the universal designated hitter. The Cubs are already taking advantage of the DH to build in more off days for Contreras and his offensive numbers to start the 2022 season show how much he benefits from that rest. He’s currently slashing .283/.397/.509 with a wRC+ of 158. Among currently qualified designated hitters that wRC+ would rank fourth between JD Martinez and Giancarlo Stanton. You can see key offensive stats for the top 10 designated hitters so far in 2022 below:

Top 10 Designated Hitters by wRC+

Name Team G PA HR BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Name Team G PA HR BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Yordan Alvarez HOU 31 132 11 14.40% 18.90% .321 .221 .250 .356 .571 .397 172 1.3
Bryce Harper PHI 34 147 9 7.50% 22.40% .328 .337 .305 .361 .634 .421 171 1.6
J.D. Martinez BOS 28 119 4 6.70% 26.10% .220 .413 .321 .370 .541 .397 164 0.9
Giancarlo Stanton NYY 33 140 10 6.40% 27.90% .258 .329 .289 .329 .547 .375 155 1.3
Josh Donaldson NYY 32 134 5 13.40% 25.40% .193 .307 .246 .358 .439 .357 142 0.9
Pete Alonso NYM 36 155 8 7.70% 23.20% .219 .305 .270 .342 .489 .360 139 0.8
Michael Brantley HOU 31 136 2 9.60% 11.80% .124 .311 .281 .356 .405 .339 130 0.8
Daniel Vogelbach PIT 30 118 6 11.90% 23.70% .223 .286 .252 .339 .476 .356 130 0.5
Shohei Ohtani LAA 37 161 8 8.10% 22.40% .216 .288 .257 .317 .473 .341 129 0.6
Connor Joe COL 32 146 4 11.60% 17.10% .164 .323 .281 .370 .445 .364 122 0.4
Select offensive stats FanGraphs

Now, obviously that 158 wRC+ for Contreras is at the higher end of his offensive production for his career, but his career number of 117 would also compare favorably, putting him in the top 15 designated hitters by wRC+ so far in 2022.

Beyond that, framing is not likely to be a key part of catching once an automated strike zone is adopted by MLB, which appears to be inevitable. The automatic strike zone is currently being used at Triple-A, and the current CBA agreement between MLB and the MLB Umpires Association includes language indicating umpires will cooperate with developing such a system for MLB according to ESPN:

The Major League Baseball Umpires Association agreed in its labor contract that started in 2020 to cooperate and assist if commissioner Rob Manfred decides to use the system at the major league level.

When the automated strike zone becomes reality a player like Contreras who is excellent at controlling the running game with a career on base percentage of .351 and plus power becomes even more valuable.

The Salvador Perez extension

Prior to the 2021 season the Kansas City Royals extended their franchise catcher Salvador Perez. I’ll get to the specifics of that extension below, but let’s look at some context before we look at the dollars and years.

Perez was 30 years old and had just come off a pandemic-shortened 2020 season that saw him slash .333/.353/.633 with a wRC+ of 162. Those numbers were aberrations to that point, his career slashline was .269/.300/.449 with a wRC+ of 99. But the metrics underlying the 2020 campaign were enticing. According to Statcast, in his age 30 season Perez was hitting the ball harder than ever before. In 2020, Perez had 156 plate appearances during the pandemic shortened season, Contreras is currently sitting at 126 plate appearances in 2022. Not a perfect comparison, but close enough for our purposes. First up, their Statcast profiles.

Sal Perez 2020 Statcast Profile
Statcast

Now Willson Contreras from 2022:

Willson Contreras 2022 Statcast Profile
Statcast

Contreras currently has a higher max exit velocity, higher average exit velocity and higher hard hit rate. He has a slightly lower barrel rate, but strikes out less, walks more and has a much better chase rate than Perez.

Notably, Contreras also has substantially fewer innings behind the plate. Perez had logged 7,701 innings at catcher prior to signing his extension, Willson has logged 4,583⅓ innings behind the plate to date in his big league career. That matters because whichever team signs him to a long-term deal (and make no mistake, Contreras is getting a long-term deal from someone) can likely ensure that his bat is exceptional for a longer period of time by managing his playing time behind the plate the way the Cubs have done this season.

The Royals looked at their franchise catcher, the other catching prospects available and their budget. They signed Perez to a four-year, $82 million extension with a club option for a fifth year at $13.5 million. You can see the breakdown of The Athletic’s Alec Lewis below:

This is an eminently affordable deal for the Cubs to extend a player who has been in their system since they signed him as a 16-year-old in Venezuela through his age 35 season. It is a deal some team will sign Willson Contreras to if he hits free agency in 2023. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the average annual value other catchers with a wRC+ over 110 over the last five years are currently making along with their age and the years remaining on their contracts:

Catchers Offensive Stats since 2016 and Contracts

Name Age PA HR BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ AAV Years Free Agent In
Name Age PA HR BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ AAV Years Free Agent In
Yasmani Grandal 33 2778 134 15.10% 24.20% .237 .354 .461 .351 121 $18.3 Million 4 2024
Mitch Garver 31 1159 56 10.70% 26.10% .252 .338 .482 .348 120 $3.3 Million Pre-Arb 2024
Willson Contreras 30 2498 100 9.90% 24.30% .260 .351 .461 .349 117 TBD Arb pending 2023
Gary Sanchez 29 2294 141 9.90% 26.60% .229 .317 .484 .339 114 TBD Arb pending 2023
J.T. Realmuto 31 3106 104 7.00% 20.60% .277 .336 .457 .338 112 $23.1 Million 5 2026
Salvador Perez 32 2549 141 3.60% 22.10% .258 .295 .487 .329 106 $20.5 Million 4 + club option 2026
FanGraphs

Salvador Perez does not have a wRC+ over 110 between 2016 and 2021, however I included his deal for the sake of comparison because it is the most recent long-term catcher extension we can use as a blueprint for Conteras.

Takeaways

The going rate for a plus hitting catcher in MLB is $18-$23 million per season. The length of those extensions is generally five years (give or take) extending to the player’s age 35 season. There are nine active catchers who qualify in innings and provide a plus bat over all of those innings and only four of them are scheduled to hit free agency in the next two years. It is rare for those players to hit free agency, because teams who have them in-house generally extend them before some other team has the chance.

There is no amazing market of free agent catchers waiting in the wings when Yan Gomes’ deal expires at the end of 2023 and the Cubs current prospects are hopefully ready to join the big league team. A couple of years ago, the answer would have been Miguel Amaya, but the Cubs best catching prospect is recovering from Tommy John surgery he had late last offseason and hasn’t caught a game since May 27, 2021. The Cubs cannot count on Amaya being ready in 2023, and either way, he’ll need a mentor.

That mentor should be Willson Contreras. The Cubs would do well to extend Willson Contreras along the lines of the deal the Royals made with Salvador Perez. Willson has more than exceeded expectations during his 14-year professional career with the organization. Extend him for the next four years, with a club option for the fifth, and let him lead the next championship core of Cubs.