Willson not distracted by unsettled contract

Cubs' catcher 'focused on winning,' but understands trade rumors will continue

March 23rd, 2022

MESA, Ariz. -- As discussed his unsettled contract situation on Wednesday morning, the Cubs' catcher balanced the shoulder shrugs with a smile. If there was frustration, he did not let it show with the cameras and microphones rolling.

"Willson's in a good head space," Cubs manager David Ross said. "I don't know that even I've seen him in such a good place since I've been here."

That is coming from someone whose relationship with Contreras dates back to their days as teammates with the Cubs. Contreras still plays and speaks with the emotions he displayed as a young player, but that edge is now supplemented by experience, perspective and acceptance.

No, Contreras does not have a contract settled for the 2022 season, but the All-Star catcher knows those details will be sorted out. Whether it is a one-year deal via arbitration, an extension or free agency next offseason, Contreras has mentally readied himself for any scenario.

"Like I've said, I'm not focused on getting an extension," Contreras said. "I'm not focused on the arbitration case. I'm focused on winning [with the Cubs]. I'm focused on competing on the field with my teammates. I'm focused on being the best that I can be for them."

Without an agreement in place, the Cubs and Contreras exchanged proposed salary figures on Tuesday. The team is offering $9 million, while the catcher's camp is seeking $10.25 million. A three-person arbitration panel will choose one after a hearing (date to be determined) during the season.

On the extension front, Contreras has stated a preference to either get something done this spring or to wait and pick up talks next offseason. The catcher does not want to add the potential distraction of contract talks during the season, if possible.

Contreras added that he understands the front office faced a difficult situation with the lockout freezing talks for 99 days between December and March. Once the Collective Bargaining Agreement was reached, building out the roster took priority over Contreras' contract talks.

"I think it was just too short of a time. That's all I can say," Contreras said. "The lockout, we know that was super long and, basically, we just got here. They had no time to negotiate. They are adding players -- they still are. I'm really glad with the job they're doing."

Without an extension in place, expect trade rumors to follow Contreras into the season. He is now in a similar situation as former teammates Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who were each dealt away before the Trade Deadline last July.

Contreras has heard trade chatter in the past and called it "super distracting" when it happened in 2019. After two more years of rumors, and the catcher remaining with the Cubs, the two-time All-Star said he has learned to take it as a compliment.

"Right now, I'm really good with it," he said. "When you hear trade rumors, it's because you're doing something good on the field that another team might want.

"And I understand that the Chicago Cubs are in a rebuild right now. And if they can get good packages, they're going to do whatever they do best for the team. Anyways, whatever happens, happens."

Asked if he ever has felt close to a long-term deal with the Cubs, Contreras said, "No, not really."

Even so, Ross has seen a great version of Contreras here during Spring Training.

"He seems eager to lead, to set an example," Ross said. "He understands he's going to make a lot of money either way, I think, when the details get worked out. His job is just to go play. He can't control any of those extra factors.

"I think he's said all those things out loud. I know he's told you guys he's in a good place. And I think just watching and being around him for a long time, he's in a really good spot."

Contreras is currently the organization's longest-tenured player -- one who converted to catching as a Minor Leaguer and worked his way up to being one of the game's top catchers. He has cited that background multiple times when discussing his state of mind with all of these peripheral storylines.

And Contreras is ready for whatever happens in the coming months.

"Once I got to the big leagues, my dream came true," he said. "I won the World Series with the Chicago Cubs. That's something that nobody can take away from me. And I'll be proud all my life, because I won with this team."