Figured I’d start these off with the player I feel, and somewhat fear, is going to be the name you hear most in trade rumors. Seems like the Cubs, both fans and front office, have forgotten what a unique toy they have in #40. But he also might be the most expendable, even if he isn’t all that expendable.
24 HR 64 RBI
9.3 BB% 24.9 K%
.368 wOBA 127 wRC+ .888 OPS
-0.3 Defensive Runs Saved
Tell Me A Story: Ok, so here’s the thing. How many catchers had a better wRC+ than Contreras this season? One, that was Mitch Garver (one of the 27 Twins to hit 30+ homers out of nowhere for no reason, in case you were wondering). How many catchers had a better OPS? Again, one. Again, Garver. Again, for no reason. So you’re dealing with basically a unicorn when it comes to offense from catchers in Willson. Since he became the full-time starter in 2017, the only catcher with a better wRC+ is Yasmani Grandal, and no one has a better wOBA. He’s a genuine treasure, with at least the bat. We’ll get to that in a second, though.
The problem for Contreras in the 2018 campaign is that his power went to the land of wind and ghosts. He only hit 10 homers, and slugged .390. We knew it was strange then, and probably something that wouldn’t continue. Willson’s hard-contact rate was below 30%. Maybe he made an adjustment, or maybe he was carrying an injury the whole time. Whatever it was, all of his numbers jumped this year back to what we know they should be, and in fact were career-highs. You have to normalize it with the golf ball being used every day, but still felt like he was returning to the norms of his first season and a half in the Majors.
There was a lot of discussion about Willson’s defense, specifically his framing, throughout the season. And a good portion of it is noise, but let’s work it through. It’s been two seasons since Willson posted a positive Defensive Runs Saved mark. One part of that is the league is now so aware of his arm, that he almost never gets to use it. When he does, he seems so excited by the opportunity he’s lasers it into the outfield more often. So he doesn’t get much of a chance to throw out runners to boost that metric.
The other part is obviously framing. But here’s the thing, midway through the season Contreras’s framing stats were all in the negative. He ended the season on the positive side of the ledger, though still some way behind Victor Caratini. Or at least close to it, depending on whose numbers you use. It’s something he was clearly working on, made an adjustment, and if the Cubs were to hire…oh I don’t know, David Ross as a manager, he would have someone with him every day to work on it with. He probably will never be Grandal back there, but he can be good as there’s still time for him to upswing.
The issue for Contreras is the contact. His contact in the zone and overall still lags behind league average, and this is something the Cubs are obviously going to try and improve somewhere next season. He’s always lagged behind, and in the season’s dying embers he seemed to be a poster-boy for poor approach with runners on, and one I was happy to echo. The Cubs have to improve their contact skills somewhere, after all.
Contract: Arbitration eligible for next three seasons. Likely to earn $5M or so.
Welcome Back Or Boot In The Ass?: This is so hard. Again, you just don’t find catchers who can hit like Willson, and the defense can and probably will improve if he wants it to. Even as he heads into arbitration, he’ll make nothing compared to the production you get. If Grandal is basically the same guy, at least offensively, he makes at least three times more than what Willson will likely get in his first arbitration spin and even that was considered low-ball.
Except all of that is also why he probably carries the most trade value. And unlike Schwarber, you probably don’t have to pay through the nose to replace him, as you have an in-house candidate in Caratini. He’ll never hit for near the power of Contreras and runners might pass out from joy when he’s catching Lester next year, but he’s the better framer and makes more contact. You’d still be downgrading the position, even more so if robot umps are in our near future, but not so much you couldn’t justify it.
Justify it depending on the return, that is. Just like anything else, you can’t trade Contreras just for the sake of it. You won’t have another like him behind the plate for years, and we know this because the Cubs didn’t. But if you can get a starter that slots ahead of Quintana and Lester for him or more, you would have to think long and hard about it. Maybe even a long-term solution in center, though I have no idea who that would be. And when I say starter, I’m thinking like Thor. And don’t tell me you couldn’t get the Mets to bite on that one, because you can get the Mets to bite on anything.
Or the consolation is you bring the best or second-best hitting catcher in the game back, have him keep working on his defense and take your .900 OPS or thereabouts and get on with your life. Doesn’t seem so bad.