The 2022 trade deadline featured the movement of many prominent names, as every team (except the confounding Colorado Rockies) made at least one trade to alter the remainder of their season. While the big trades for the likes of Juan Soto and Frankie Montas grabbed the most attention, equally notable for several teams who projected to be significant factors at the deadline were the moves that weren’t made. The Mets and White Sox remained relatively quiet despite standing to benefit from big offensive additions, and after Juan Soto was dealt, the Cubs dealt nothing but relief arms despite holding two of the most valuable bats on the market in Ian Happ and Willson Contreras.
This leaves the Cubs in an awkward position, particularly with Contreras: while Happ is under team control for the coming season and was only to be dealt if a team was willing to cough up the higher prospect yield necessary for the extra year of team control, Contreras stands to hit the free agent market at the end of this season. At this point, then, the Cubs have three options with Contreras. They can let him walk at the end of this season for nothing; they can extend him the qualifying offer at the end of the season; finally, the Cubs can negotiate a longer term contract extension for Contreras to remain a Cub for years to come.
The Cubs have exhibited an apparent aversion to signing Contreras long term which makes an extension seem unlikely at this point, but Contreras remaining a Cub now that the deadline has passed warrants clarification on where Contreras fits into the roster, what an extension would look like, and how it might fit into the team’s plans in the coming years.
Contreras’s fit on the roster
Let’s start off by exploring how Contreras fits into the roster and the lineup should he stay a Cub for the next several years. He plays catcher and designated hitter with the addition of the DH to the National League, and this would be true for the duration of any contract extension. Contreras is a solid defensive catcher – he’s an average to below average framer, but ranks very well in pop time to second base and has a good reputation for relationships with pitchers. A good deal of Contreras’s value comes from his offensive excellence among catchers, a position that is traditionally weak at offense due to being one of the premium defensive positions.
Given that Contreras is now 30 years old, concerns regarding catcher workload and his longevity at catcher are reasonable, and will play into his contract value, but the addition of the DH allows the Cubs to get Contreras into the lineup without forcing him at catcher, and this undoubtedly helps preserve his longevity. In 2020 and 2022 combined, the two years in which the designated hitter has been a position in the National League, Contreras has spent about ⅔ of his games behind the plate and the remainder at DH, and this rest from catching while staying in the lineup boosts Contreras’s value in addition to providing promise that he can maintain his production further into his career.
The other consideration in Contreras’s position is whether the team has other catchers on the horizon. Miguel Amaya is the team’s only top prospect at catcher who should be in the Major Leagues within two years. Amaya has solid defense behind the plate, but his offense has hardly excelled at any level in the minors, largely due to high strikeout rates. Amaya is currently in AA, and is projected to make it to the Major League level by next season. While his defense at catcher will make him a strong backup catcher at a minimum, he will have a lot to prove offensively. As a result, there is no reason that Amaya and, by extension, any other catcher should be expected to take playing time from Contreras at catcher.
Ultimately, Contreras stands as one of the best offensive catchers in baseball who should be able to remain at the position for several years and slot into the lineup every day, and while the Cubs can easily come up with good backup options, there is nobody that should be a higher priority than Contreras at catcher.
Next, it is important to consider an estimation of the length and value of a Contreras extension based on the market for other catchers in recent years. Let’s look at three other catchers who have signed multi-year deals in the last few years as a point of reference here: Yasmani Grandal, J.T. Realmuto, and Salvador Perez. All of these catchers were around or older than 30 years old in the first season of their multi-year contracts, and their various contracts can better inform what a contract for Contreras might look like as he approaches his age 31 season.
Yasmani Grandal: 4 years, $73M, $18.25M AAV, age 31-34 seasons
First, and most similar to Contreras in offensive value, is Yasmani Grandal. Grandal signed his four year deal with the White Sox heading into his age 31 season, which is exactly when Contreras’s new deal will begin. Like Contreras, Grandal was a better than league average hitter every year of his career, providing a wRC+ around 125 in his best seasons. He provided solid power and an excellent walk rate for catchers, giving him a high offensive floor. Grandal’s real value, however, came from his framing prowess, which made him one of the game’s best defenders and most valuable catchers for years. Many viewed this deal as a steal for the White Sox when it was signed; however, it should also be grounds for some caution in giving big money to a catcher, as he struggles to put anything together offensively after the workload of ten years behind the plate.
J.T. Realmuto: 5 years, $115.5M, $23.1M AAV, age 30-34 seasons
Realmuto was one of the game’s best all-around catchers when the Phillies traded a large prospect haul to get him before the 2019 season, and after two strong seasons in Philadelphia the team signed him for another five years at a lofty $23.1M AAV. Along with Grandal, Realmuto has been one of the best defensive catchers in the league, and also provided a very similar offensive output with above-average offense on a yearly basis and some very good years of a wRC+ approaching 130. Realmuto doesn’t excel in any offensive attribute, but he is a consistent hitter who shows good power and hits well for average. Realmuto’s defensive skills in addition to his being a year younger when signing his extension added considerable value to his new contract, which has been a great success for the Phillies so far.
Salvador Perez: 4 years, $82M, $20.5M AAV, age 32-35 seasons ($13.5M club option for age 36 season)
Perez’s contract extension before the 2022 season was a bit of a head-scratcher, mostly because Perez was still under contract for 2022 at a much cheaper salary. Still, the Royals committed to paying him at a much higher rate for 2022 and beyond based on his offensive success in 2020 and 2021 – Perez’s 162 wRC+ in the shortened 2020 was tenth among all players with at least 150 plate appearances, and in 2021 Perez tied both the single season home run record for a catcher and the franchise single season home run record with 48 en route to a wRC+ of 127. As a result of this offensive peak, the Royals committed over $80M to their franchise catcher, despite his ranking very poorly in framing and having poor plate discipline. Before 2020, Perez struggled to provide league-average offense as a result of very low walk rates despite his home run power.
Overall, Perez’s contract can be viewed as a bit of an outlier, as he likely would have struggled to command this much money on the open market; however, it is important in this regard to consider the value of a franchise starting catcher who has a reputation with a team. While the Cubs are clearly not eager to reward Contreras by overpaying him as the Royals did Perez, it is certainly reasonable that Contreras might expect to be viewed on this level given his established relationship with the Cubs.
Based on these contracts, it would be very reasonable to expect Contreras’s next contract to be good for 4-5 years, which would take him into his age 34 or 35 season. The argument could certainly be made that, relative to Grandal and Realmuto’s contracts, Contreras should earn less given his worse defense, but it’s also reasonable to expect that Contreras would want to base his contract value off of these deals. Overall, Contreras does command a lot as one of the only available players at a premier position for the next several years. Given that the most recent of these contracts, Perez, established a precedent for both a high contract value and a contract until age 36 for a catcher, my best guess is that Contreras’s deal will reflect this contract more closely than the other two. Finally, I think that the Cubs would try to frontload any Contreras extension to free up money to be spent in 2024 and beyond, given that that is the projected competitive window for the team.
As such, I would guess that a Contreras extension with the Cubs would look like 4 years and $84M, with Contreras earning more in the first year of the contract than the last three. Contreras may seek an added fifth year, and many various additional options are possible, but this is what I would guess the core of the deal would look like.
How a Contreras extension fits the team’s plan
Now that we’ve determined how Contreras fits into the Cubs and how much it would cost the team, it’s important to emphasize that the team can afford the extension comfortably. The Cubs currently have $91.5M dedicated to the roster in 2023 (before arbitration), and this value will likely be around $105M after players such as Nico Hoerner, Nick Madrigal, and Alec Mills agree to their first arbitration salaries and Ian Happ’s salary increases in his third year of arbitration. The current competitive balance tax threshold, above which teams are penalized for extra spending, is $230M. As such, even with all of the money currently dedicated to the 2023 roster, the Cubs have spent less than half of the amount which would put them over the threshold, meaning that there will likely be at least $120M in free cap space for the Cubs to spend without exceeding the threshold. Beyond 2023, the team has even less money dedicated to the roster, which leaves plenty of available cap space for extensions.
The other consideration in this case is that there should be absolutely no concern about spending up to or even exceeding the competitive balance tax threshold, as the Ricketts family are one of the richest ownership groups in MLB ($4.5B net worth) in control of one of MLB’s most valuable franchises ($3.8B). Moreover, they’re turning Wrigley Field and the surrounding area into a money printing machine to further the profit they earn from the team, with Wrigley Field offering the second most expensive fan experience in baseball, the Ricketts Family buying up the area around the field and redeveloping it into expensive hotels and restaurants and, most notably, the Ricketts’ building a sportsbook at Wrigley Field to open next season. There is no shortage of money available to sign players, and there is certainly money in the budget for Willson Contreras.
Finally, a player such as Contreras warrants a discussion into the intangibles of the value of his relationship with the team. He debuted in the 2016 championship season and has been the starting catcher since then, providing stability at one of the most important positions on the field as the entire roster changed around him in that time. Now, Contreras is one of the only remnants of a championship team whose meaning to fans and the city was indescribable. In an era where players almost never spend their entire career with one team and the emotional attachment that a player and a city can share is limited as such, the Cubs have the unique opportunity to make Contreras one of baseball’s most cherished players and an icon of the franchise by committing to him as the veteran centerpiece of a winning team for the coming years. For almost no other player in baseball can the same be said, and the value of such a relationship between a player, a team, and a city cannot be put into words.
Most notably, few players have made it as clear as Contreras has that they have an absolute and irrevocable love for playing baseball for the team that they do. Willson Contreras loves being a Chicago Cub, and there’s nothing else that makes him quite so special to fans and the city alike.
The bottom line is this: there is no catcher as meaningful and valuable as Willson Contreras to the Chicago Cubs for the next four years or more, and the team has the money to pay him what he deserves. After no team managed to make a trade offer for Contreras that valued him as highly as the Cubs do, it is clear that he is significant to the team. Contreras wants to be a Cub, the Cubs value Contreras, and if a contract extension does not happen at this point there has been no failure more abject in the dissolution of the 2016 Chicago Cubs.