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Reflections on the day the Cubs did not trade Willson Contreras and Ian Happ

This all could end up very well for the Chicago Cubs. Wait, hear me out.

Willson Contreras and Ian Happ on the field at Busch Stadium before Tuesday’s game
Jim Walaitis

Before Tuesday, what I heard from many (though not all) Cubs fans was: “Extend Willson Contreras!”

Even acknowledging the fact that not all folks think that extending a 30-year-old catcher is a good idea, that appeared to be the consensus.

After it was revealed that the Cubs wouldn’t be trading Contreras or Ian Happ, what I heard both on this site and from others was along the lines of, “Now they’ll only get a draft pick when he declines the qualifying offer!” And that was among the nicest things said. One email I received said, “Jed Hoyer is a total loser.”

Well, he’s not, though I have certainly criticized him on this site before.

The assumption that the only endgame here is “make QO, Contreras declines, Cubs get a compensation B pick” is, I think, incorrect.

First. listen to Contreras’ comments after the game:

“Relaxed and happy” certainly appears to describe the way he looked and sounded during that clip. He had a huge smile on his face after he tripled in the third inning Tuesday night, and it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a smile like that from Willson.

We already know — and he repeats in that clip — how happy he is to be playing for the Cubs. Remember that this is the 14th season he’s been in the Cubs organization, nearly half his life. Remember this? [VIDEO]

Think about the sort of ovation he’ll get when he steps to the plate Friday against the Marlins at Wrigley Field. BCB reader Theo’s Spare Soul was at Tuesday’s game in St. Louis and sent me this:

Ian Happ got a smattering of applause when he came out, and a few seconds later, when Willy emerged from the dugout for pre-game stretches, there was a big eruption from the Cubs fans in the crowd, and he raised his arms triumphantly, not unlike you’d see a guy coming out of the dugout after a walkoff home run is hit. It was pretty cool.

You might not think these sorts of things matter. I think they do. The endgame here isn’t necessarily what I mentioned above. In his presser Tuesday, Hoyer said he hadn’t yet sat down to talk with Contreras and Happ, but intended to do that. It’s clear to me from this quote that Hoyer values Contreras highly:

If Hoyer is serious about building the “Next Great Cubs Team,” I think Willson Contreras needs to be a part of it. If Contreras departs, that leaves Yan Gomes and... somebody, perhaps P.J. Higgins, as the Cubs catchers for 2023, with Gomes 35 years old and probably in his last season. That doesn’t seem like a step forward.

Is it possible that Contreras declines into his mid-30s? Sure. Other catchers have had productive seasons at those ages, though, including J.T. Realmuto, Buster Posey, Yasmani Grandal, Russell Martin and Carlos Ruiz, and that’s just in the last decade or so. All of those catchers had seasons of 3+ bWAR after age 30, some multiple times. Contreras has had four such seasons, peaking at 4.1 bWAR last year, and at 3.0 bWAR so far in 2022, looks like he’s going to have another such season. He’s in great shape, and with the DH he doesn’t have to catch 110+ games a year anymore — this year he’s on pace to catch about 90 games and DH in perhaps 50-55 others. That’s a good recipe for extending a catcher’s career.

It was clear Contreras felt the love of Cubs fans in what many thought would be his final Wrigley game as a Cub [VIDEO].

The Cubs aren’t sniffing the postseason this year, so that would give Hoyer & Co. a full month to sit down with Contreras and his agent after the season ends and before qualifying offers are due to work out a long-term deal. What would I offer? Four years, $80 million with a fifth-year vesting option at $25 million (with easy incentives to vest) or a $10 million buyout. I think that would be fair for a player of Contreras’ caliber.

Contreras also has value to the franchise beyond his play on the field. He’s popular and marketable. Now, obviously you don’t sign a player solely for those reasons, but they do matter for a team in transition to that “Next Great Cubs Team.”

I’ve gotten more than 700 words into this article barely mentioning Happ, the other significant Cusb player who wasn’t traded Tuesday. Happ, of course, has one more year of team control before free agency. His strong first half got him to the All-Star Game for the first time, and I do think the Cubs need to see that he finishes strong before offering him a long-term deal. Maybe you think the Cubs should let him go, but if he looks like a longterm piece? If Happ simply went to arbitration for 2023, he’s likely due somewhere around $13 or $14 million. I’d only offer him a longterm deal if he finishes 2022 strong, though.

Both of these potential offers point up the need for Hoyer & Co. to sign young players to long-term contracts before they get close to free agency, or even close to arbitration. It’s what all the cool teams are doing — the Atlanta Braves, for example:

You know, the Cubs could have done that with Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber. Now, you’ll probably say that based on current production, that wouldn’t have been worth it for at least two of those players, and you’d be right. But that shouldn’t make Hoyer shy away from doing it going forward. For example, what if Pete Crow-Armstrong comes to MLB two years from now and becomes the player we all hope he is? What if he’s the NL Rookie of the Year in 2024? In that case the Cubs should sign him to a long-term extension right then. The Braves are building a juggernaut with those signings. If the Cubs wind up with players that talented on the “Next Great Cubs Team,” they should do the same.

Lastly, on the talent the Cubs received from trading four relievers (Chris Martin, Scott Effross, David Robertson and Mychal Givens), they appear to have done quite well. Zach McKinstry is going to get chances to prove he can be an everyday MLB player. Hayden Wesneski, by all accounts, is going to be in the Cubs rotation in 2023, and most think he’ll be a good No. 3 starter. Ben Brown throws hard, strikes out a lot of guys and doesn’t walk many. Saúl González has struck out 10.2 and walked 2.5 per nine innings in High-A in the Mets system. The Cubs have been criticized, rightly so, for not developing pitching under the Theo Epstein regime. Hoyer is trying to fix that by stockpiling hard-throwing arms. Hopefully, this pays off. I’m tired of seeing every team but the Cubs trot out a parade of pitchers who can throw 98+.

I think Hoyer did pretty well at the deadline, and I think there’s a reasonably good chance that Contreras and Happ will be strong contributors to that “Next Great Cubs Team.” I posted this video in the recap to Tuesday’s game, but If you haven’t seen it and would like to see Hoyer’s presser from Tuesday evening, here it is:

Poll

Give Jed Hoyer a grade for his moves and non-moves at this year’s trade deadline...

  • 8%
    A
    (99 votes)
  • 46%
    B
    (523 votes)
  • 27%
    C
    (311 votes)
  • 10%
    D
    (114 votes)
  • 6%
    F
    (67 votes)
1114 votes total Vote Now

Poll

What will happen to Willson Contreras after the 2022 season?

  • 44%
    The Cubs will sign him to a multi-year contract extension
    (411 votes)
  • 18%
    The Cubs will make him a qualifying offer and he’ll accept it
    (169 votes)
  • 37%
    The Cubs will make him a qualifying offer and he’ll decline it
    (345 votes)
  • 0%
    Something else (leave in comments)
    (7 votes)
932 votes total Vote Now