Sunday, July 3, 2022

Will He Be Dealt? Potential Landing Spots For Willson Contreras


The Chicago Cubs will soon have a big decision to make. What to do with Willson Contreras?

Arguably the most well-known player on the 2022 roster, the two-time National League All-Star is enjoying perhaps his best season as a Cub. Contreras is showing no signs of slowing down at age 30 and is proving to have plenty of offensive firepower left in the tank, per his Statcast page on Baseball Savant.

The installation of the Designated Hitter has been a boost for Contreras and the Cubs.

Contreras, in eight games as the team’s DH, is putting up absurd numbers. He’s hitting .379 and getting on base at a .471 clip. His slugging percentage is .793 which leads to an OPS (On-base plus slugging percentage) of 1.264, a ridiculous number. As a catcher, in 24 games, Contreras is putting up a triple-slash line of .224/.365/.365, which is decent.

On the year as a whole, Contreras is enjoying career-best marks in several categories. His .391 OBP (On-base Percentage) is the highest of his career and his .865 OPS is the second-highest of his career. His 19.6 strikeout percentage is the lowest mark of his career and a drastic improvement over 2021’s ugly 28.6 strikeout percentage (which was his highest ever).

In baseball’s current landscape, there is almost no production from the catcher position across the league, making Contreras’ red-hot start stand out even more. Among all major league catchers, Contreras is first in runs scored (24), third in home runs (5), second in walks (16), third in batting average (.263), first in on-base percentage (.391), first in slugging percentage (.474) and first in OPS (.865).

To truly highlight how weak the catcher spot has been so far in 2022, there are just three catchers holding an OPS north of 700 (Contreras, Daulton Varsho of Arizona with a .790 mark and Keibert Ruiz of Washington with a .726). Contreras is miles ahead of the majority of the league.

With that in mind, is now the right time to cash in on Willson Contreras as a major trade piece before the July trade deadline? Contreras will be a free agent after 2022, which puts a major cloud of uncertainty over his Cubs’ future.

Will the Cubs be looking to sell major pieces over the next month or two? They have won six of their last 10 games, but remain in fourth place in the National League Central, behind even the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates. With the third-worst record in the National League, it seems likely each day that the Cubs will not be a playoff threat in 2022.

Do the Cubs view Contreras as a building block for the future, when the team may contend in 2023 or 2024? Or is he a sell-high player now with the hope of getting a handful of prospects that may contribute in 2-3 years?

If the Cubs are selling Contreras, there will likely be no shortage of teams interested in his services, especially given his excellent statistics as a DH in 2022. Here is a quick look at a handful of contending teams that may be buying, if the Cubs are selling.

New York Yankees (28-10)

Potential fit for Contreras: Excellent

Baseball’s best team at the moment, the Yankees always seem to be buyers at any July trade deadline. Adding Contreras to a Bronx Bombers lineup of Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, and Anthony Rizzo would make the Yankees American League favorites. The Yankees’ current catching situation is a mess, as Kyle Higashioka is hitting just .161 in 23 games while Jose Trevino is at just .204 in 24 games. The Yankees and Cubs got together last summer in the Rizzo trade, so they are familiar with one another. The addition of Contreras would give the Yankees one of the league’s top catchers and a clear upgrade over their current situation.

New York Mets (26-14)

Potential fit for Contreras: Excellent

The Mets spent a fortune over the off-season and are going for it in 2022. Despite losing ace Max Scherzer to a two-month injury, the Mets will still be in win-now mode for the rest of 2022 and could use a boost at catcher. Starter James McCann is out with a wrist injury (and was struggling with a .551 OPS anyway) which means the new starter is Tomas Nido. Who? He’s hitting just .207 with an OPS under 500, so he is certainly not a long-term option. Contreras would bolster a deadly lineup that features Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor, and Starling Marte, among others and give the Mets the weapons they need to win the National League East, where they currently enjoy a seven-game lead. Plus, the Mets and Cubs shopped together last year in the Javier Baez trade.

Houston Astros (25-14)

Potential fit for Contreras: Excellent

If the Astros want to hold off the Angels in the AL West, an upgrade at catcher seems inevitable. They have arguably the worst catching group of anyone in baseball as starter Martin Maldonado is hitting just .122 over 90 at-bats with a .452 OPS. He has been a -0.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) player so far. Backup Jason Castro has been, somehow, even worse than that with a .083 batting average and .344 OPS in 15 games. You have to figure a change is coming soon to this position, and the Astros may have their eyes on Contreras, who would join a slugger-heavy lineup of Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, and others.

San Diego Padres (24-14)

Potential fit for Contreras: Good

The Padres are more than just keeping their head above water, as they wait on superstar shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. to return from injury, as they are just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West. Their lineup has been carried by Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer to date, but the catcher position, like many other NL teams, is a weak spot. Starter Austin Nola is hitting just .208 with an OPS of just .537 and backup catcher, Jorge Alfaro, hasn’t been much better. He has a decent OPS of .671, but has 28 strikeouts in just 60 at-bats. An upgrade is needed for the Friars. Like the teams above, the Padres and Cubs recently made a large trade when Yu Darvish was sent west for a package of prospects, so the comfort level may be there between these two front offices.

Tampa Bay Rays (23-15)

Potential fit for Contreras: Good

The Rays are about as unorthodox as it comes in baseball, but they are firmly entrenched in the playoff race yet again in the early going and should be attracted to a rental of Contreras with no strings attached for next year, contract-wise. Starter Mike Zunino has been dreadful in the season’s first seven weeks with a .150 batting average and 32 strikeouts in just 80 at-bats. His backup, Francisco Mejia, has been much better. He is hitting .295 with a .477 slugging percentage, but over just 44 at-bats. The Rays are not typically big shoppers around the trade deadline, but they did make an aggressive move a year ago when they acquired Nelson Cruz, so anything is possible for a trade pairing with the Cubs.

Los Angeles Angels (24-16)

Potential fit for Contreras: Good

How about a reunion with former Cubs manager Joe Maddon? The Angels sit in second place in the American League West and have firepower already with Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Jered Walsh, and Taylor Ward leading the way. But you guessed it, catcher has been an offensive black hole. Starter Max Stassi has been on the COVID-IL for over a week and has been awful in 2022 with a .200 batting average in 19 games. Backup Kurt Suzuki is hitting under .200, as is Chad Wallach, another backup, who’s hitting just .125. If the Angels can get any production from their catcher, it would be an upgrade over their current situation. Contreras, in that dangerous lineup and in that California weather, could push the Halos near the top of the American League.

Chicago White Sox (19-19)

Potential fit for Contreras: Good, but unlikely

Let’s have a little fun here with this one. Could the White Sox be interested in Contreras’ services? This is probably a very unlikely scenario and the Sox would be a dark-horse candidate to acquire Contreras, but they could certainly use the offensive boost at catcher. The Sox have been slow out of the gate so far in 2022 and starter Yasmani Grandal is struggling to the tune of a .184 batting average and OPS of just .548. He is still getting on-base plenty and has drawn 18 walks in 34 games, but he’s been a negative WAR player (-0.4) after nearly seven weeks. Backup Reese McGuire (.382 OPS in 21 games) is not the answer, at least offensively. The Sox have been hampered by injuries and are treading water until Eloy Jimenez and Lance Lynn return from injury, but an offensive upgrade at catcher (or DH) would jump-start their team and help them take over the first-place Minnesota Twins. The Sox and Cubs have been fairly active in blockbuster trades over the last five seasons with the Jose Quintana/Eloy Jimenez/Dylan Cease trade in 2017 and last year’s Craig Kimbrel for Nick Madrigal swap, so why not dream of another big one this summer?

The Cubs hold all the cards–at least for now–in the potential Contreras sweepstakes. Will he stay or will he go? Is he part of the team’s future or are his days in Wrigley Field numbered? Jed Hoyer’s phone will be active, either way, this June and July.

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