ST. LOUIS -- Marcus Stroman has already seen a difference in the demeanor of Cubs catcher Willson Contreras now that the Trade Deadline is behind him. The pitcher said it was noticeable in a chat they had before Thursday's doubleheader.
"He just said he feels like he can take a deep breath again," Stroman said. "He said he's sleeping a little better. That's hard on anybody, going through that, especially when Willson's been here his entire career."
Given the backdrop of last season's Deadline, Contreras assumed he was the next core Cubs player headed to a new city. It did not happen, and now the catcher is happy to put his concentration on the remaining games over the next two months.
In Thursday’s twin bill at Busch Stadium -- resulting in a 4-3 loss to the Cardinals in Game 1 followed by a 7-2 defeat in the nightcap -- Contreras launched a solo home run and delivered a double in the first tilt. That came after a triple on Tuesday, when Contreras received a standing ovation from the friendly fans on hand in enemy territory.
On Friday afternoon, Contreras will be back in Wrigley Field, where he thought he said farewell to Cubs fans in an emotional July 26 game against the Pirates. Asked what he expects for his return to the North Side, the Cubs' long-time catcher smiled.
"It's going to be fun. It's going to be good," Contreras said. "I know we said goodbye, because I assumed that I was getting traded. But it didn't happen, and I'm glad I get to go back to Wrigley Field, where everything started. And I get to play for the best fan base in baseball."
It was not only Contreras who assumed he was as good as gone.
"Nobody said he was getting traded for sure," Stroman said. "And then it was like all of a sudden, even we all felt like, 'Oh my God, he's got to be traded,' you know? And you never know what can happen at the Trade Deadline. It's always kind of up in the air."
A year ago, when the Cubs dealt away Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, the club reeled in potential impact prospects. Four of the players acquired -- Pete Crow-Armstrong (No. 3 Cubs prospect), Kevin Alcantara (No. 4), Caleb Kilian (No. 6) and Alexander Canario (No. 19) -- are ranked among MLB Pipeline's Top 30 Cubs Prospects.
Even going back to December 2021, the Cubs were able to net four prospects, including Owen Caissie (No. 9) and Reginald Preciado (No. 13), in the blockbuster deal that sent ace Yu Darvish to the Padres.
This time around, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer weighed offers for Contreras (a free agent this coming winter), but he did not waver from the Cubs’ asking price. In the end, when the 5 p.m. CT Deadline arrived on Tuesday, Chicago saw no deal that was worth more than the internal value established.
The same held true for outfielder Ian Happ, who is under control through 2023 for the Cubs.
"Jed obviously showed [last year] that he is willing to make really difficult decisions," Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins said on Thursday in St. Louis. "But [only] when the price is right in the minds of the Cubs. That didn't happen this year. It's hard to say where and how other teams set their price, but we set ours and we didn't get a match to make some of those moves."
Whatever happened, Contreras has looked visibly at ease over the past few days, smiling and offering fist bumps all around.
"Willson looks good," Cubs manager David Ross said. "He looks back to the guy we've known. There was probably a lot on his mind, and carrying that over obviously affected his game."
To that end, Contreras hit .149 with 25 strikeouts in 85 plate appearances in July, watching his season OPS drop to .818 from .917 in 19 games. In fact, going back to June 14, when his OPS was at its highest point from May through July, the catcher hit .215 (.638 OPS) up to the Deadline.
Then came Tuesday's triple into the right-field corner, and Thursday's home run out to right-center. Contreras noted that he has already made some approach adjustments, which he said he failed to pick up on under the stress of the Deadline distractions.
"I found out after I wasn't getting traded," Contreras said. "It was something that clicked, and I think it was just more mindset than anything else."
Contreras plans on doing everything in his power to keep his mind clear in the coming months. That could prove challenging once he approaches the offseason's doorstep, when questions about his free-agent future will gain momentum.
"I'd rather worry about today and tomorrow than the offseason," he said. "Whatever's going to happen is going to happen. I know I said the same thing with the Trade Deadline. It was different -- I get that. And I won't take that back, but I'm just focused on helping my team to get better."