Looking For A Match In A Willson Contreras Trade

This year’s Aug. 2 trade deadline is just over seven weeks away, and while some names won’t become obvious candidates to move until five or even six weeks from now, others have been evident for more than a year. That’s more true of Cubs catcher Willson Contreras than arguably any player in baseball. There may not be a likelier player to get traded this summer, and the writing has been on the wall for quite some time. The Cubs looked like probable deadline sellers heading into the 2021 season, and Contreras’ fate looked clear when Chicago sold off Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, among others. Some fans might’ve held out hope for an extension that would make Contreras the centerpiece of the next contending Cubs core, but no long-term deal came to fruition.

From both the player and team vantage point, Contreras’ current career year has come at the perfect time. He’s hitting .267/.394/.506 with 10 home runs, 10 doubles and a triple through 213 trips to the plate. By measure of wRC+, the only catcher who’s been more productive (min. 100 plate appearances) is Willson’s own brother, William, who is having a breakout campaign over in Atlanta. Willson’s 10 homers are tops among catchers, and he’s on pace for career-highs in several offensive categories. A pending free agent couldn’t ask for a much better walk year, and the Cubs have to be thrilled to see him producing like this at a time when league-wide catcher offense hasn’t been this bad since 2002.

Contreras has acknowledged that a trade appears to be his likely fate at this point, and it’s more a question of when and where than whether it’ll happen at all. Since a trade feels far likelier than not, let’s take some time and run through the possible landing spots for Contreras over the next several weeks.

Obvious Fits

Astros: The only team in Major League Baseball that has gotten worse production from behind the plate is the Orioles, who entered the year trying to lose and have since watched their top prospect struggle upon his initial call to the big leagues. Martin Maldonado has posted an awful .153/.225/.277 batting line, while backup Jason Castro has somehow been even worse at .102/.206/.136. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic wrote this week that the Astros will likely stick with Maldonado despite the complete lack of offense, declining framing marks and increasingly frequent passed balls. The rationale appears to be that Maldonado’s leadership and game-planning skills are too valuable.

That piece, however, did not acknowledge the possibility that the Astros can still go ahead and acquire Contreras, pushing Maldonado to a backup role and jettisoning Castro from the roster. There’s no justification for a supposed World Series hopeful to trot out a pair of catchers that has combined to hit .141/.221/.241 this season. Houston has other needs, be they in center field or at first base where Yuli Gurriel’s bat has cratered, but Astros catchers have been 63% worse than league-average at the plate (by measure of wRC+). Whatever intangible value Maldonado may be providing with his game-planning, he’s giving a lot of it back at the dish. And, again, it’s eminently possible to keep Maldonado on the roster and still install Contreras as the everyday catcher.

Mets: James McCann hasn’t lived up to his four-year, $40.6MM contract in the first place, and he’s currently on the injured list for the foreseeable future owing to a fractured hamate bone that’ll sideline him into July. McCann should be back in action by the time the trade deadline rolls around, but he’s hitting just .196/.266/.286 on the season anyhow and hamate injuries can have lingering effects on a hitter’s production even after they’re cleared to return.

It’s in the Mets’ best interest to get McCann sorted out at some point, but they have two years left to figure that out (or to find a way to unload the contract). Backups Tomas Nido (.245/.277/.274) and Patrick Mazeika (.186/.205/.326) haven’t provided any offense whatsoever in McCann’s absence. Taking on Contreras pushes McCann to a backup role and deepens the lineup considerably — both this summer as the Braves continue to heat up and climb in the standings and in the postseason, when they’ll be facing off against better pitching than they see during the regular season.

Giants: Buster Posey abruptly retired following a resurgent 2021 season, and former No. 2 overall pick Joey Bart hasn’t been able to seize the opportunity as the Giants’ new starter just yet. Optioned to Triple-A last after hitting .156/.296/.300 through 108 plate appearances, Bart could still eventually sort things out and solidify himself as the Giants’ catcher of the future. For now, however, they’re relying on career backup Curt Casali and journeyman Austin Wynns, whom they acquired from the Phillies last week.

The Giants are a deep-pocketed club with a $162MM payroll that’s nowhere near their franchise record and an improved farm system. General manager Scott Harris, formerly an assistant general manager with the Cubs, is plenty familiar with Contreras and all he can bring to the table.

Payroll Concerns

Rays: Only a hair better than the Astros in terms of their overall production, Tampa Bay catchers are batting a combined .169/.195/.305 this season. Mike Zunino’s defense remains highly regarded, but he’s having the worst season of his career at the plate (.148/.195/.304). Backup Francisco Mejia has been a bit better at the plate but much worse behind it.

It’s an open question as to whether the Rays, whose current $83MM payroll sadly constitutes a franchise-record mark, would receive ownership support to take on Contreras and the remainder of his salary. The Cubs could perhaps be persuaded to include some cash to cover some or all of the salary, but doing so on their end would require the Rays to part with a steeper prospect package. The Rays, as always, have a deep system and could afford to make such a move. Perhaps they could sell the Cubs on taking back the remainder of the recently optioned Ryan Yarbrough’s $3.85MM salary to help balance things out a bit. (Chicago could certainly use some more pitching depth.) Specific names aside, there aren’t many more obvious fits for Contreras than Tampa Bay.

Padres: Austin Nola and Jorge Alfaro have combined to bat .239/.298/.326 while logging every inning for the Padres at catcher this season. San Diego has top catching prospect Luis Campusano hitting well in Triple-A, so perhaps the most straightforward path to an upgrade is simply to promote him to the big league roster.

That, paired with the fact that the Friars are just inches below the new $230MM luxury-tax threshold, makes them a tough fit. There’s a clear on-paper need for the Padres to improve their production behind the dish, but the also have needs in the outfield corners and/or at first base, and the bandwidth to take on Contreras doesn’t seem to be there. The Cubs aren’t going to take on Eric Hosmer or another weighty contract in a deal like this, and asking Chicago to pick up all of the remaining tab on Contreras would only up the price.

Guardians: Austin Hedges is one of the best defensive players in baseball, regardless of position … but one of the sport’s worst hitters as well. Maybe Cleveland simply wouldn’t be interested in displacing Hedges and his potential Gold Glove, but it’s hard to look at his .175/.233/.283 batting line and not wonder how the Guardians’ lineup would look upon swapping that out for Contreras and his aforementioned .267/.394/.506 slash. And, as with the Astros, the Guards could certainly keep Hedges as a defensive-minded backup, pushing Bryan Lavastida back to Triple-A and probably pushing Luke Maile off the roster.

Cleveland’s payroll is just under $70MM right now, and one would think that leaves more than enough room to add veterans at the deadline. But payroll has been a major issue in recent seasons, and it’s not clear whether they’ll be close enough to a playoff spot to make a move like this — or whether they’d be willing to part with long-term value for a rental who’d immediately be their second-highest-paid player.

Wait and See

Yankees: The Yankees have received surprising production from trade acquisition Jose Trevino, who’s batted .309/.356/.505 and already matched his career-high five home runs in just 104 plate appearances. Trevino came to the Yankees as a lifetime .245/.270/.364 hitter, however, so it’s fair to be a bit skeptical of his ability to sustain this pace. He’s not striking out much but also isn’t making much in the way of hard contact, either. The trade deadline is still six weeks out, and if Trevino regresses toward his career levels of production, then the Yankees figure to be in this market, particularly with Kyle Higashioka again struggling at the plate.

Mariners: Seattle was getting career-best production from Tom Murphy before he landed on the injured list with a dislocated shoulder. He’s since suffered a setback, and it’s not clear when he’ll be ready to return. Prospect Cal Raleigh is doing his best Zunino impression in place of Murphy, striking out in a third of his plate appearances while showing good power and strong defensive marks. Raleigh, 25, has a .168/.252/.411 batting line with seven long balls in 107 plate appearances. If he can find some more consistency and/or if Murphy can get on track for a return, the Mariners might not feel the need to make this type of move. Beyond that, the M’s have cooled after a hot start and are 4.5 games back from a Wild Card position and six games under .500. They’re close enough to act as buyers right now, but that outlook could change in the coming weeks.

Marlins: Miami hoped to have addressed its catching need this winter when acquiring Jacob Stallings, but he’s hitting .206/.271/.255 in his first season with the Fish. Even more problematic is the team’s overall performance against southpaws: an MLB-worst .205/.280/.315. The Marlins are a fringe contender at the moment and probably have bigger needs even if they were to make a push at the deadline.

Longer Shots

White Sox: The Sox are already paying Yasmani Grandal $18.25MM, and while the resulting .185/.294/.237 batting line can’t sit well with the organization, there’s no indication to this point that they’re prepared to take on a notable veteran like Contreras and push Grandal into the role of MLB’s highest-paid backup. It’d be interesting to see another chapter entered into the story of crosstown Chicago blockbusters, though. The Sox didn’t get what they were hoping for when acquiring Craig Kimbrel last summer, but the prior North Side/South Side swap sent Dylan Cease and Eloy Jimenez to the Sox for Jose Quintana.

Twins: Minnesota’s focus at the trade deadline is going to rightly be pitching help — both in the bullpen and in the rotation — but their catchers have been a middle-of-the-pack unit, at best. Gary Sanchez leads the team in plate appearances at designated hitter and has hit better as a DH than as a catcher. But the Twins feel he’s been better than his reputation with the glove, and they’ve used the DH spot as a means of giving several players off — including Byron Buxton. Sure, the lineup would be deeper and better with Contreras catching, Sanchez at DH and Ryan Jeffers as a backup catcher, but this isn’t going to be a priority.

Red Sox: Christian Vazquez has posted a solid, if unremarkable .271/.315/.374 batting line in 168 plate appearances this season, but neither of Boston’s backup options (Kevin Plawecki, Connor Wong) have provided any offense at all. This doesn’t feel all that likely, as Boston probably has bigger needs to consider when the deadline rolls around — assuming they hang onto (or remain within striking distance of) their current No. 3 Wild Card spot in the American League.

Contreras has been the best all-around catcher in baseball this offseason, so you could make the argument that he can/should be shoehorned into just about any contender or fringe contender’s lineup. But when looking at the combination of legitimate playoff chances, pure need behind the plate and realistic ability to facilitate a trade of this nature (based on luxury tax, farm system, payroll), it’s hard to look past the Astros, Mets, Rays and Giants as the best fits for a short-term splash behind the plate.

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