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Inbox: Would Cubs pair Grandal, Contreras?

Beat reporter Jordan Bastian fields offseason questions from fans
December 17, 2018

Do the Cubs have interest in Yasmani Grandal? If they brought in Grandal, wouldn't it allow Willson Contreras opportunities to play the outfield again and get more rest days? Plus, he could learn from someone that is a better pitch framer. -- James O., Havana, CubaThe only way I'd envision

Do the Cubs have interest in Yasmani Grandal? If they brought in Grandal, wouldn't it allow Willson Contreras opportunities to play the outfield again and get more rest days? Plus, he could learn from someone that is a better pitch framer.
-- James O., Havana, Cuba

The only way I'd envision the Cubs getting into the free-agent bidding for Grandal is if they moved Contreras in a trade, and that's not something I'd expect Chicago to do. Now, the front office has said they'd need to get "creative" to add a contract of any significance this offseason. Trading Contreras would definitely fit that description, especially if the Cubs could package him with a larger contract to free up payroll.
The more likely scenario is that the Cubs bank on Contreras -- entering his final pre-arbitration season at 26 years old -- bouncing back from a rough finish to the 2018 campaign. Contreras made the National League All-Star team last summer and had an .830 OPS through Aug. 1, but then faded to the tune of a .495 OPS over his final 45 games. During the Winter Meetings, manager Joe Maddon said Contreras might have been consumed by his struggles.
"He became really difficult on himself, and I think he dragged himself down a bit," Maddon said. "I just think he got in a bad rut and couldn't get out of it. We've got to talk to him soon early on and get things straightened out with him mentally and how you approach this whole thing. I like that he plays with his hair on fire, but you can't get too emotional. These are things we'll talk about him."
And those things would be better worked out (especially defensively) with Contreras as the starting catcher -- not as a player bouncing between catching and playing the outfield. Plus, when Grandal gets his contract, he will be doing so as a starting catcher as well. I'm just speculating, but neither Contreras nor Grandal would probably want to be in a situation where the innings are shared down the middle. They're both used to being the top option.

Defensively, though, you're right, James. Contreras has a lot of room for growth, especially when considering that the Cubs' pitching staff has trended downward in both strikeout rate (24.3 percent in 2016 to 21.3 percent in '18) and walk rate (8.3 percent in '16 to 9.9 percent in '18) over the past three seasons. That's a 4.5 percent decrease in strikeout-minus-walk percentage during that span.
Last season, Contreras had a minus-17.8 Framing Runs (MLB low) per Baseball Prospectus, while Grandal ranked first at 15.7. Overall, Contreras was deemed to be minus-15.4 in Fielding Runs, while Grandal ranked second at 17.7. Contreras did rate well in Blocking Runs (fifth at 1.9) and Throwing Runs (eighth at 0.4), so it was really the representation side of things that cost him and the Cubs.
"We need to get him to continue to work on his defense to the point he understands the catcher's responsibility regarding guiding his pitching staff," Maddon said. "Sometimes you have to sacrifice comfort for function. ... The guy is an incredible talent. Strong, the way he throws, blocks the ball. There's so much good right there. So we've got to, again, extract it out of him. Start over a little bit this year."
:: Submit a question to the Cubs Inbox ::
First off, welcome to the Cubs beat! Looking forward to following along from the heart of Cardinals country here in Jefferson City, Mo. (Boo!) My question is: I don't recall seeing any updates on Yu Darvish this offseason. How is his winter progression coming, and should we expect him to be in the starting rotation come the start of the season?
-- Tyler M.

Shortly before the Winter Meetings, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said that head athletic trainer PJ Mainville visited with Darvish in recent weeks and returned with "an A-plus glowing report" on the right-hander's rehab and offseason training progress. Until we hear otherwise, the expectation seems to be that Darvish will be ready for the start of the season.
That said, picking up Cole Hamels' option for 2019 helps guard against any setbacks anywhere else in the rotation. If Darvish or any other starter hits a snag and faces an Opening Day DL stint, the Cubs are fortunate to have strong depth in that part of the roster.
The Cubs are supposedly targeting Troy Tulowitzki or Daniel Descalso. Why not get Daniel Murphy? He is a professional hitter that was on the 2018 roster at the end of year. He is great in the clubhouse and the young Cubs looked up to him. I'd take him before Tulo or Descalso.
-- Mike B.

Once the Cubs opted to tender shortstop Addison Russell a contract for 2019, that made it less likely for the team to then target someone like Murphy or another free agent such as DJ LeMahieu. There will be a hole at second at the start of the season, while Russell finishes out a 40-game suspension and Javier Baez handles short. But the Cubs have some internal options (Benjamin Zobrist, David Bote or Ian Happ).
If Tulowitzki is healthy and wants a regular role at short, well, that wouldn't make sense for the Cubs. He'd be viewed as a veteran bench player. Descalso would add veteran depth to Chicago's bench as a utility man. That is more what the team is seeking, rather than a full-timer up the middle like Murphy.
How about Tyler Chatwood for Russell Martin? The Cubs have a rotation of Jonathan Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, Hamels and Darvish, with Mike Montgomery wanting to start. It is hard to see how Chatwood breaks into the rotation. Martin's trade value is low because of the other available free-agent catchers. It would give the Cubs the backup catcher they were looking for and some payroll relief for 2020. The Blue Jays get another starter who might be better with a change of scenery.
-- Mark C., Chicago

This is the kind of deal the Cubs would probably have to do in order to move Chatwood -- a swap of large contracts. I could get on board with this, but part of it would depend upon Toronto's willingness to take on the 2020 salary. In terms of the luxury-tax aspect, Martin's average annual salary is $16.4 million, while Chatwood's is $12.6 million. So it'd be roughly a $3.8 million hit to the Cubs' bottom line for '19.
Martin would not only fit the bill as a backup, but could also offer the veteran leadership Chicago is seeking. In a perfect world, the Cubs could deal Chatwood without taking on as much salary as in this concept, but on the surface I wouldn't oppose this kind of trade if it didn't hinder the Cubs from addressing some other needs (such as the bullpen, for instance).
The Cubs need a closer. Is there any chance of signing Craig Kimbrel?
-- Patrick L., Greenville, Mich.

I wouldn't get your hopes up, Patrick. The Cubs are definitely looking for relief reinforcements, but it doesn't seem like they will be players at the top of that market. Barring some trades to free up funds, the expectation is that Chicago will be looking for some more value-type signings later this offseason. Closing experience would be beneficial, but it's not a prerequisite for the arms the Cubs are targeting.

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, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.