Deadline looming, Willson ready for 'this to be over'

August 1st, 2022

SAN FRANCISCO -- As sat in the visitors' dugout at Oracle Park on Sunday night, reality set in for the Cubs’ longtime catcher. He may have just played his final game for the only ballclub he has known.

"It hit me a little bit there," Contreras said.

The 4-0 loss to the Giants was an unremarkable defeat within this long, rebuilding season for the Cubs. The significance rested in that realization for Contreras, along with some of his teammates, that the team's next first pitch will come after Tuesday's 5 p.m. CT Trade Deadline.

Contreras has navigated through the constant questions about his future with a steady poise until recently. Emotions overflowed on the field and in interviews during the last homestand -- one that turned into a sort of farewell both for fans and the catcher -- and Contreras spent most of this trip to San Francisco absent during media availability hours.

Prior to Sunday's game, Contreras' head bobbed to music coming from a large set of headphones, as he tuned out the rest of the clubhouse. In the wake of the loss, though, the longest-tenured player in the organization was at his locker and ready to field questions again.

"I was feeling like I was saying the same thing over and over," Contreras said, "because I don't know what's going to happen. I didn't want to say anything that I'm going to regret later. ... I feel like today was a good day to talk to you."

The timing was appropriate, considering the Cubs have a team off-day in St. Louis on Monday. Contreras said he planned to do a pool workout and play some video games to distract himself, and keep himself from checking his phone too often.

"It's going to be a long day," Contreras said. "It's been a long, long, long, long week, long, long month for me. But I'm ready for this to be over."

Last season, Contreras watched how teammates Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo approached their own uncertain futures with the Cubs. Contreras -- with extension talks at a standstill and free agency looming -- promised himself that he would not talk about his situation in the clubhouse.

Contreras shook off the constant inquiries with a smile for the first few months and thrived on the field, earning a third career start for the National League All-Star team. As the Deadline has ticked closer, though, Contreras' production has slipped. With an 0-for-4 on Sunday, he has hit .149/.259/.230 in July.

"It's just hard," Contreras said, "because any time that you hear that you have a little time off, or free time, your mind is going probably right to the trade rumors. I wish that's not the case, but I won't lie. I talked to [manager David] Ross about it. It's not easy. You have to learn how to deal with this. This is my first time in this position.”

All Contreras knows is he is ready for this all to reach a conclusion one way or another.

"I just want this to be over," he repeated again. "If they want to trade me, they want to trade me. If they don't want to trade me, then don't. But I just want this day to pass and keep focused on playing baseball."

Contreras was signed out of Venezuela as a 17-year-old in 2009, debuted in the 2016 World Series campaign and has grown into more of a mentor behind the scenes this year. He admitted Sunday that it has been challenging to adjust to a losing team, given the string of playoff runs he experienced in his first several big league tours.

“I care a lot about making the team better,” Contreras said. “I care a lot about winning. I know this team is not made to win this year -- not even close. But I learned a lot from this team too, from losing. I learned a lot.”

Contreras said once he "accepted" that the playoffs were not realistic, it became easier to focus on the games and take younger players under his wing. He raved about the likes of Nico Hoerner and Christopher Morel, but knows there is still a lot of development to go for the Cubs overall.

"They have great talent," he said. "They have all the qualities to be great ballplayers in the big leagues and to play for a long time. But, they obviously are going to need somebody to guide them.”

In the meantime, Contreras will continue to wait to find out where he will be playing his next game.

"I'm really thankful for the time that I've been here," he said. "Fourteen years. Who can say that? Obviously, this game shows you that it's not about feelings. It's about business. That's something that I learned this year. Yeah, it's not about feelings."