Contreras 'living the present' while Cubs future stays cloudy

September 28th, 2022

CHICAGO -- Willson Contreras has already been through one round of farewells. Back in July, when the Cubs catcher was convinced he was about to be traded, he experienced an emotional series of games that he thought would be his last at Wrigley Field.

Prior to Tuesday's 2-1 win over the Phillies, Contreras was activated from the injured list for this season's last six home games. Given the uncertainty that remains over his future with the only organization he has ever known, Contreras wanted to return, rather than get an early start on his offseason.

"I'm just going to go out there and have fun," Contreras said. "It was really important for me to come back and play these last series at home. We all know, I've been here for 14 years. We don't know if it's a real goodbye, or just a moment."

In the fourth inning, Contreras slashed a pitch from Phillies righty Zack Wheeler into the right-field corner with an exit velocity of 108.8 mph. The catcher pushed for a double -- even coming off a left ankle injury -- and was thrown out at second base.

Contreras' willingness to hustle and push himself has never been in question. Since his rookie year in 2016, he has learned how to channel that high-energy, high-emotion style of play and turned himself into a three-time All-Star and one of the great catchers in Cubs history.

Contreras also knows a new chapter to his story could loom.

"I'm here. I'm living the present," Contreras said. "And whatever's coming next, I'm ready for it."

Contreras has a pretty good sense of what is coming next. The catcher explained that now he understands why the asking price was so high on him at the Trade Deadline. The Cubs can give him a one-year qualifying offer for 2023 and, if he rejects it, the team can collect a compensatory pick in the next MLB Draft.

The qualifying offer for next season will likely be in the $18 million to $19 million range, as it is calculated via the average of MLB's top 125 salaries. Extending that one-year offer is a no-brainer from Chicago's side of the table. Contreras understands that, too.

"It's part of the business," Contreras said. "I'm not going to get offended. I already talked to my agent about it. And we're gonna think about that."

Would Contreras consider accepting such an offer?

"At this point, I'm not going to even answer," he said. "I'm going to wait and see what's next. But, we have to consider it."

The chances of that scenario coming to fruition seem slim, given Contreras having an opportunity to test the market for a longer-term contract. He is coming off one of his best offensive seasons, boasts one of the better arms among catchers in the game and has made strides as a clubhouse presence.

The 30-year-old Contreras, who is the longest-tenured player in the Cubs' organization, said the market "will speak for itself" this coming winter. He was then asked if his priority as a free agent was going to be winning or financial security.

"For me, it's more like feeling that I'm wanted," Contreras said, "that I'm going to be somewhere that I'm wanted. And I feel like they're going to appreciate what I do on the field and off the field. A place that, they appreciate what I bring to the clubhouse and what I can do."

Cubs manager David Ross -- teammates with Contreras when the catcher broke into the big leagues in 2016 -- has praised the All-Star for how he has played amid so many external distractions this season. That continued Tuesday, when Contreras' activation generated another round of inquiries about his future.

"He's had a great year," Ross said. "I don't know if he could have done much more. I feel like he came into Spring Training on a mission and didn't let the outside things bother him too much."

Back on July 31, when Contreras was still expecting to be dealt by the Aug. 2 Deadline, he expressed that he felt the Cubs were "not even close" to being built to win. The catcher said Tuesday that his thoughts have not changed about that as this season winds to a close.

"It's still the same," Contreras said. "I know we have a future. I know we have a really good farm system. But getting close to win? We're still going to have a lot of work to do. And I'm being honest. I mean, I know we have a lot of pitching [down in] the farm system.

"But still, this team's going to need some balance like we had in 2016. We had all the veterans, but we had a lot of young talent, so that balance creates a good chemistry. That balance creates guys that can guide the younger talent or can be their support.

"And that's something that [the Cubs] probably are looking forward to doing for the next year or even, I don't know how long it's going to take."

In the meantime, Contreras is going to enjoy however many games he has left in a Cubs uniform.

"I'm not going to make any assumptions," Contreras said of his future with the Cubs. "I'm just going to go out there and have fun and see what's going to happen the next few months."