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Inbox: Should the Cubs trade Contreras?

Beat reporter Jordan Bastian fields fans' questions
@MLBastian
October 22, 2019

CHICAGO -- Questions about the catcher position, the bullpen, the payroll and more are answered in the latest Inbox. Do you think the Cubs' front office will decide they would be fine with Victor Caratini and a defensive backup, and trade Willson Contreras **to fill different needs? -- Kyle L.,

CHICAGO -- Questions about the catcher position, the bullpen, the payroll and more are answered in the latest Inbox.

Do you think the Cubs' front office will decide they would be fine with Victor Caratini and a defensive backup, and trade Willson Contreras to fill different needs?
-- Kyle L., Lake Zurich, Ill.

That will be an interesting conversation that the Cubs will surely be having internally over the offseason.

Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said there will be no untouchables in trade talks this winter, adding that any stalled extension talks could increase the chances of Chicago exploring the market for a core player. That puts the likes of Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Kyle Schwarber and Contreras under the microscope as Chicago plots its course for 2020 and beyond.

Bryant, Báez and Schwarber will be eligible for free agency in 2022, with Contreras following suit in '23. It would be hard to replace stars like Bryant and Báez, especially given that the latter plays a premium, up-the-middle position. You would not be able to get as large of a package back for Schwarber, but he probably tops that four-player list as a trade candidate.

Contreras, 27, is an interesting one, though, because as Epstein said after the season: "The best version of Willson Contreras is an MVP candidate, a difference-making catcher."

And, that's true. You would be hard-pressed to find another catcher with the same athleticism as Contreras, who is an elite hitter for the position, does a great job of controlling the running game and has rated well as a blocker throughout his career. As noted in the question, though, Contreras continues to rank near the bottom of the Majors in pitch framing.

Per FanGraphs, Contreras had minus 8.9 Framing Runs in 2019 -- up from minus 18.2 in '18, but still well below average. Contreras ranked 109th out of 113 catchers in Framing Runs (minus 9.4) per Baseball Prospectus and 101st in Fielding Runs (minus 7.7) this past season. For comparison, as a backup, Caratini had 1.6 Framing Runs per FanGraphs and 3.1 Fielding Runs via Baseball Prospectus.

Caratini, 26, also more than held his own offensively, hitting .266/.348/.447 with a 108 wRC+ in a limited role. Contreras hit .272/.355/.533 with a 127 wRC+, ranking first in MLB in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and wRC+ among catchers with at least 400 plate appearances. In that same group, Contreras ranked fifth in WAR (2.7 per FanGraphs) largely due to the fact that the four catchers ahead of him were elite framers.

According to FanGraphs, Contreras' performance in 2019 was valued at $21.7 million, or roughly $20 million in surplus value. If he were able to reach even an average level of framing results, Contreras' value would go through the roof. That makes him worth a lot to the Cubs, but it also makes him an extremely intriguing trade chip, if a team is willing to part with the kind of package that could address some of Chicago's goals this winter.

If the Cubs think they can afford to lose some offense at catcher in the name of enhancing other areas, including framing and run prevention, that would make Contreras a prime trade target. Then again ...

"We've won a lot of games with Willson Contreras behind the plate," Epstein said. "We've had a lot of success pitching with Willson Contreras behind the plate. There are certainly areas he can continue to improve upon, but shame on us if we can't continue his development at the big league level, because this is like the most tooled-out, athletic catcher who has a huge heart and cares and wants his pitcher to succeed as well."

What would be the best options for relief pitching? Targeting free agents or from solving from within?
-- @KrisScheider via Twitter

I would expect a mix of both, but don't rule out trades, especially ones that fly under the radar. Consider that just last winter, the Cubs swung a deal with the Padres on Nov. 20, acquiring righty Rowan Wick for Jason Vosler. It hardly stole headlines, but Wick emerged as one of Chicago's most trusted late-inning leverage arms by the end of 2019.

As things currently stand, there is an intriguing group of internal relief arms to fill out the bullpen. Wick and lefty Brad Wieck quickly earned trust down the stretch. Lefty Kyle Ryan developed into a dependable option. Pitchers like Alec Mills, Duane Underwood Jr., James Norwood, Dillon Maples and Danny Hultzen all give the Cubs something to think about as they build the 'pen in front of closer Craig Kimbrel.

The Cubs have three veteran arms set to hit the free-agent market in Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler. It's not out of the realm of possibility that the team looks at retaining at least one of them on a cost-effective deal if they remain on the market deep into the offseason. One way or another, the Cubs will probably try to add an impact arm to strengthen the late-inning formula.

What's the payroll situation look like for next year?
-- @dtpollitt via Twitter

The Cubs have not said what their payroll ceiling will be in 2020, because "we've come to realize that strategically it's best just not to talk about it," said Epstein.

What we know right now is that there is around $108 million locked in between eight contracts for next season. It's a safe bet that the Cubs will pick up the options for Anthony Rizzo and José Quintana, while also buying out Brandon Morrow's contract, putting another $30 million on the books. Depending on any non-tenders, Chicago could have between $40-$50 million coming via arbitration costs, too.

So, without even making an external move, the Cubs look like they are heading into the 2020 campaign with around $200 million accounted for in player payroll. Trades could obviously be a way to loosen things up financially, especially if Chicago plans on being a major player on the free-agent market.

Any word on the status of the Cubs' coaches left from Maddon's staff?
-- @Chrisro86188409 via Twitter

The delay in announcing the coaching staff for 2020 is directly related to the ongoing managerial search. With how much turnover the staff has had in recent seasons, the Cubs probably prefer to keep some of the group intact. That said, a new manager typically has people in mind for coaching roles when building their own staff.

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.