Contreras reports to camp with Cubs future up in air

March 13th, 2022

MESA, Ariz. -- When the smoke cleared on the Trade Deadline last season,  looked to his left and then to his right, and he was the core player who remained with the Cubs.

Contreras saw Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo -- each on the cusp of free agency -- shipped off to other teams for a haul of prospects. Extension talks did not come to fruition for that trio of stars, so the front office turned the page on one of the great eras in franchise history.

"Those things were in my head before I got here," Contreras said after his first workout of Spring Training on Sunday. "Obviously, it happened last year. It could happen this year. But, to be honest, I live my life one day at a time.

"Whatever happens in the middle of the year is going to happen. Life goes on. You've got to keep going."

Now, Contreras finds himself in a similar situation as this season looms. The All-Star catcher said there were no extension talks over the offseason, and his arbitration case remains unsettled. Barring a deal to avoid that process, the sides will exchange proposed salaries on March 22 and, if needed, a hearing will take place during the season. He earned $6.65 million last year.

That arbitration may have been wrapped up by now, but baseball's lockout and transaction freeze put that process on hold. The Cubs' front office is now hustling to fill out its roster, putting multiyear talks with Contreras on the back burner for the time being.

"This is a condensed window," Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said this week. "As we've talked about, you want to get guys in camp as quickly as you can. Not all those deals are going to come together right away, but that's certainly the goal.

"As far as our own guys, we'll probably, once we've kind of filled out our roster, that's something we'll re-address."

Contreras, who will turn 30 in May, is not setting any firm deadlines on negotiations for a long-term deal. He did note a preference to discuss an extension either during Spring Training or next winter. He prefers not to have that potential distraction once the regular season begins.

Free agency is also intriguing to Contreras, who has established himself as one of baseball's top catchers. He is the longest-tenured player in the organization, having signed out of Venezuela as a third baseman in 2009. He transitioned to catching in '12 and worked his way to becoming a two-time All-Star (starting for the National League in '18-19) and a Gold Glove Award finalist in '20.

The idea of hearing contract offers from other teams is enticing for Contreras given the path he has taken to this point.

"It would be fun," he said. "I think it would be like a dream come true, especially coming from the bottom of the organization. I started here as a third baseman. Coming all the way through the Minor Leagues, converting as a catcher and earning my spot as a Chicago Cubs catcher, it would be fun to have that experience."

That makes it sound as though Contreras is at peace with whatever direction the Cubs want to take with him. Without an extension, however, trade rumors will continue to swirl around the catcher, especially as Chicago keeps balancing competing in the present with a long-term vision.

From Contreras' side of the table, he may also want to understand the Cubs' plans for the next few seasons. If Chicago is facing a longer transition phase as it builds "the next great Cubs team," as Hoyer has phrased it, the catcher may want to keep his options open.

"I'm all about winning, to be honest," Contreras said. "And I wish that I can get at least one more ring in my career -- that's something that I'm looking forward to. I'm a winner. I consider myself a winner. Like I've said, I'll do my best for the Cubs. I'll do my best for any team."

On Dec. 1, the Cubs brought in a contingency plan of sorts with the signing of veteran catcher Yan Gomes to a two-year deal (with a team option for 2024). If Contreras is traded, Gomes gives Chicago an experienced player to step into the starting role.

That said, the presence of Gomes, combined with the designated hitter coming to the NL, will allow manager David Ross to better handle Contreras' workload. Contreras was pacing the NL in innings caught in 2021 before injuries got in the way in the second half. Chicago also cycled through eight backup catchers in '21.

"I think it's great to have Yan Gomes on the team," Contreras said. "I'm excited for him. I know he's a hard worker. He's a really nice guy. I just met him. I'm looking forward to working together and help this team the most we can."

When reports began surfacing that the Cubs were targeting Gomes on Nov. 30, Contreras posted an ominous tweet with four emojis of airplanes taking off and landing.

"I was trying just to play around," Contreras said with a smirk. "I'm still here. This is my team."

But will it be Contreras' team beyond the 2022 season?

"I'm not saying this is going to be my last year," Contreras said. "I'm not looking forward to leave the organization, I would say. But I'm in the present. I'm not thinking about getting a contract right now.

"I'm just thinking about playing baseball, getting to know my guys and having a good season."