As the MLB offseason inches closer, it’s tough not to speculate what the Chicago Cubs may do this winter. Really, everything is on the table for the organization as the future beyond 2021 remains unclear. Do the Cubs consider trading Yu Darvish to facilitate a fast-paced rebuild? Or does Theo Epstein elect to run it back for one last run at a World Series ring with this core?
You can’t answer either of these questions without getting into which of the core Theo Epstein is going to extend or trade this offseason. I already gave my thoughts on if the Cubs should extend Kris Bryant. Now, I dive into whether or not Willson Contreras should be part of the Cubs’ future plans beyond 2021.
Of the Cubs’ Core Position Players, Willson Contreras is the Most Valuable
For starters, Willson Contreras is the only member of ‘the core’ (Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, and Kyle Schwarber) that doesn’t hit free agency in the 2021 offseason. That extra year of service time makes Contreras the most valuable piece of the core on the trade market. This is because cost control (i.e. contracts still under arbitration) will be prioritized even more this offseason due to the global pandemic and financial uncertainty.
A section of the Cubs fan base uses this fact to advocate trading Contreras for a prospect pool in return. While this is an understandable proposition, Willson possesses a collection of skills that are seldom seen around baseball, and I believe Theo Epstein and the Cubs should extend him for this reason. I dive into these skills below.
Contreras No Longer Has a Weakness Defensively
It’s a well-known fact that Contreras improved his receiving skills behind the plate significantly from 2019 to 2020. Among the 23 catchers with 700+ innings caught in 2019, Contreras ranked fourth-worst in FRM at -8.9. His framing deficiencies limited his ceiling as a player considerably due to the defensive-first nature of the catching position.
The Cubs and Contreras knew this, so they both endeavored to improve Willy’s receiving mechanics this offseason. As a testament to Contreras’ work ethic, improve he did. In 2020, among the 24 catchers with 250+ innings caught, Contreras was ninth-best in FRM at +1.7. That’s an overall improvement of 10.6, going from worst-in-the-league to middle-of the-pack. An improvement of this magnitude is seldom seen in a single offseason.
With an already elite pop time, arm strength, and blocking skills, this framing improvement changes everything in regard to Contreras’s value going forward. He no longer has a cap on his potential due to framing deficiencies. Now, Willy can produce at a high level even in the midst of a slump offensively, which wasn't the case pre-2020. This ability is vital for premium defensive positions such as catcher, shortstop, and centerfield.
The Cubs Should Not Take for Granted Offensive Production at Catcher
Offensively, Willson Contreras performs at the highest level within his position. Among catchers with 800+ plate appearances since 2016, only Yasmani Grandal (118), Gary Sanchez (117), and Mitch Garver (117) outpace Contreras’ wRC+ of 116. While yes, that is fourth, the margin from one to four is razor-thin (2%).
I’d also argue that Contreras would lead MLB in wRC+ within that timeframe if it wasn’t for his injury-plagued, 100 wRC+ 2018 season. Willson played the entire second half of that year injured and it negatively skews his career numbers. But I digress. However you want to frame it, one thing is clear: Willson Contreras is as good as it gets offensively for a catcher.
The last three words of that sentence are crucial. That is because, as stated previously, catcher is a defensive-minded position. Most catchers in baseball fall below the 110 wRC+ threshold, as hitting is not the prioritized skillset. This makes an elite hitting catcher all the more valuable because it’s one of the hardest skillsets to find. When you have it, and the Cubs currently do, it provides you with a competitive advantage that only four or so teams in MLB possess. This is but one reason why extending Contreras is in Theo Epstein and the Cubs’ best interest.
Injury History and Age are a Long-Term Concern
Don’t get me wrong, there are potential drawbacks to extending Contreras. He hasn’t necessarily been the healthiest guy in recent years. Not only did he play through the second half of 2018 injured, but he also missed time down the stretch of the 2019 campaign because of a hamstring injury. This isn’t exactly comforting considering Contreras will reach age 30 when he hits free agency in 2022. To add to that concern, catchers typically age more aggressively than any other position due to the physical wear and tear it puts on the lower half of your body (knees especially).
Given the reasons stated above, I can understand why Cubs fans may be hesitant to extend Contreras into his mid-30’s. Committing long-term money to an aging catcher is a risky endeavor. I get that. However, I do not believe the aging concerns are as much of an issue with Contreras as they are for a typical catcher. This is because Willy possesses the athleticism to transition to other positions in order to save his legs as he ages. How many other catchers in MLB do you know who can play third base and both corner outfield positions on command? The answer is very few, if any.
Not only does Contreras possess the athleticism to transition to another position, but the Cubs also possess the catching depth from an organizational standpoint to facilitate this change as well. Victor Caratini, one of the better backup catchers in MLB, is under club control through 2023. Miguel Amaya, the 91st top prospect in baseball, is expected to make his MLB debut in 2021. The Cubs also have two other catchers among their top 15 prospects. Need I go on? The Cubs are set up better than any other organization at the catching position, both now and for the future. Not only is moving Contreras to a different position something the Cubs can afford to do as he ages, but it’s also likely something Theo Epstein has envisioned for quite some time.
Contreras Brings the Fire
Something that should not be overlooked is the way Contreras carries himself on a game-by-game basis. Even if you throw away the framing improvements, elite bat, and athleticism, Willy is still the type of player you want in your clubhouse. He plays with fire and ‘brings it’ on a daily basis. These intangibles are how the Cubs can maintain a winning culture beyond 2021. It's pretty simple: Willson Contreras is a guy you can build a team around.
The Cubs and Theo Epstein Should Extend Willson Contreras
When taking everything into consideration, there are a hell of a lot more positives to extending Contreras than there are negatives. In addition to everything I’ve already stated, he’s one of the only members of the core that has improved in some regard every single offseason. Whether that be his walk rate, ability to hit for power, or his receiving mechanics, Contreras enters spring training with a refined skillset every single year. This should be viewed in high regard by Theo Epstein and the Cubs, as most of the core has regressed in some fashion since 2016.
With Contreras' historically proven elite bat, framing improvements, cannon of an arm, and athletic ability, he possesses unicorn-like tools that are seldom seen from a catcher. The Cubs would be ill-advised not to prioritize him as a foundational piece for the future. Please, Theo Epstein, extend Willson Contreras.
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