'A weight off my shoulders': Contreras, Happ stay with Cubs

August 3rd, 2022

ST. LOUIS -- All-Stars Willson Contreras and Ian Happ embraced in the Cubs’ dugout at Wrigley Field a week ago, anticipating that they had played their final home game as teammates in Chicago. They will have more games together.

In a surprising development, the Cubs decided to hold on to both Contreras and Happ at Tuesday’s Trade Deadline, as teams did not meet the demands sought by the rebuilding North Siders. After an emotional week, two of the Cubs’ most important pieces can contemplate their respective futures with the only organization they have known.

"I feel like there was a lot of weight off my shoulders," said Contreras, who was beaming and looked more relaxed than he has in weeks. "Today was a long day. I was really anxious to see what was going to happen."

During batting practice ahead of Tuesday's 6-0 loss to the Cardinals, both Contreras and Happ remained in the visitors' clubhouse at Busch Stadium. In the hours leading up to the 5 p.m. CT Deadline, veteran relievers David Robertson and Mychal Givens were shipped to the Phillies and Mets, respectively, for one pitching prospect each.

After the Deadline expired, Cubs manager David Ross went into the locker room, where he found Contreras and Happ. Ross informed the duo that they were staying put. Some more hugs followed, but these were based on relief rather than potential farewells.

"He said they were done. It was over," Happ said. "And we were able to celebrate a little bit. It was nice. Lots of hugs. I gave Rossy a hug, gave Willy a hug. Happy to be here. Everybody else was out at BP, so I had to make a couple phone calls and tell everybody to stand down from the panic."

Contreras is a passionate player and person who wears his emotions on his sleeve. During the last homestand at Wrigley Field, he was teary-eyed in interviews with reporters. He reacted to standing ovations from the home fans with waves, fist pumps and by hoisting his helmet skyward before an at-bat.

A year ago, Contreras watched the Cubs trade core stars Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo for packages of prospects. All three experienced stalled extension talks and were poised for free agency when the offseason arrived. Contreras was in the same situation now, so he was convinced a new uniform was in his future.

"I did assume that I was getting moved even though they didn't say anything like that,” Contreras said. “But, it happened years before, so as a human being, you just assume things. And that's what I did. I'm just looking forward to getting back to Wrigley Field and to keep playing for the Cubs."

What was the difference this time around?

"There were teams that were interested," Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said in a Zoom call after Tuesday's Deadline. "Like last year, I think we were willing to listen if someone gave us a piece that could really help our future. We never crossed that threshold.

“Willson is a really valuable player. He's been a great Cub for six years now and we never got to that place where we felt comfortable making a deal to end his tenure here."

Part of the equation in Contreras' case is the fact that he could net the Cubs a compensatory Draft pick next year if he declines a one-year qualifying offer for 2023 ahead of free agency. At a minimum, any return package now was going to have to exceed that value.

"Last year at the Deadline, things lined up for us where we had really motivated buyers at the right times,” Hoyer said. “I think this year, in some ways, it makes me realize how fortunate we were last year from a prospect standpoint, to be able to accomplish what we did."

Contreras -- a three-time All-Star, member of the 2016 World Series-championship team and the longest-tenured player in the organization -- will be eligible for free agency at the end of this season. Happ is under control for one more year and, like Contreras, has expressed a desire to stay with Chicago long term as the team continues to work to build its next contender.

Happ was not initially expecting to be traded, but he started to hear his name more often in rumors and reports as the Trade Deadline grew closer. The outfielder said a lot of thoughts swam through his mind Monday when the Cubs had an off-day in St. Louis.

"It's a different situation, obviously, contract-wise and having a year of control," Happ said. "Definitely, kind of two weeks before, I didn't think it was going to happen. And then momentum started to pick up, and you guys started to write a bunch of stories. And before you know it, you think you're gone."

So, when Happ learned he was also staying put?

"I'm super happy that that went by and I'm still here," Happ said. "I wanted to be here. I wanted to be with these guys, wanted to be in this clubhouse still wearing this jersey. This city, this fan base, the team means a lot to me. I'm really happy about that."

In Tuesday's loss, Contreras delivered a triple off the right-field wall in the third inning, raising both arms skyward and tugging at the name on his jersey upon reaching third base. In the fourth, Happ chased down a deep fly off the bat of Paul DeJong, making a leaping catch at the wall to take away a home run.

"It's nice they're still on the team," Ross said.

Things will quiet down for Contreras for now, but the next saga will involve whether an extension will keep him out of free agency.

"One thing is for sure," Contreras said. "Tomorrow is another game. So, I have to stay focused. That's all I can say."