With next week’s Winter Meetings still ahead, free agents Grandal (White Sox), Travis d'Arnaud (Braves), Stephen Vogt (D-backs), Avila and Dustin Garneau (Astros) already have signed. Yan Gomes (Nationals) and Tyler Flowers (Braves) also returned to their respective 2019 clubs. And in addition to Narváez, Sandy León (Indians) and Austin Allen (A’s) have been involved in trades.
That’s part of what makes the Willson Contreras rumors so intriguing. There has been speculation about Contreras as a trade candidate throughout the offseason as the Cubs consider any number of options to reshape their roster. A report from The Athletic on Thursday (subscription required) cited an industry source who said that Chicago could market the 27-year-old as an alternative for teams that fell short in the Grandal sweepstakes.
Such a move would be a risk for the Cubs. But Contreras is considered to be a subpar pitch framer, Victor Caratini emerged as a viable replacement last season, and moving Contreras could allow Chicago to address other areas of greater need while shaking up a roster that fell short of expectations in 2019.
Meanwhile, the case for other teams to acquire Contreras is a strong one:
• In an era when catchers as a group have been roughly 10-15% below league average offensively, Contreras is a .267/.350/.470 career hitter, making him 17% above average by park-adjusted wRC+. Last year he posted a career-best 127 wRC+.
• Opportunities to make an impact acquisition behind the plate this offseason are running short. A 35-year-old Robinson Chirinos is probably the most attractive remaining free agent catcher, atop a group that also includes the likes of Welington Castillo, Jason Castro, Francisco Cervelli, Chris Iannetta, Jonathan Lucroy, Martín Maldonado, Russell Martin and Matt Wieters.
• MLB Trade Rumors projects Contreras to make a modest $4.5 million through arbitration in 2020, and he has three years of club control remaining before he is due to reach free agency. This isn’t a rental, yet an acquiring team would not have to spend big this season or commit to Contreras past age 30.
But while that sounds like a package most any team could use, many already have settled their catching situations, or are not in the sort of competitive position that would make such an addition likely. There are still some excellent fits for Contreras, though. Here are the top seven:
They are opening a new ballpark in 2020, and after taking a step forward this past season under rookie manager Chris Woodward, could be ready to pursue their first postseason berth since ‘16. While Texas has been linked to some big targets -- the club met recently with Anthony Rendon -- catcher might be its most glaring need. Rangers backstops hit a collective .193/.241/.298 last season, second-worst in MLB behind Detroit. The veteran Mathis is deservedly renowned for his work with pitchers, but his .433 OPS last year is difficult to absorb. He can still back up Contreras, who would bring some much-needed right-handed power to the new Globe Life Field and its much more inviting left-field power alley.
Last year’s top three catchers (Lucroy, Kevan Smith, Garneau) are gone, the Angels desperately need to upgrade their roster surrounding Mike Trout, and new manager Joe Maddon had plenty of success in Chicago with Contreras behind the plate. Stassi is a superb pitch framer and was a league-average hitter for the Astros in 2018, but he also struggled mightily at the plate in an injury-shortened ‘19 campaign. So whether or not the Halos land Gerrit Cole to pitch to him, Contreras could help snap a five-season playoff drought.
3) Houston Astros
Current catchers: Garrett Stubbs, Garneau
Garneau, a 32-year-old with less than 400 MLB plate appearances, was more of a depth move. Stubbs debuted last season and has 39 PA under his belt. That’s not a tenable situation for a team with Houston’s aspirations, so something is likely to happen here. The simplest solution would be to bring back Chirinos, who performed well for the Astros in 2019 -- and caught all of Justin Verlander's starts for good measure. Contreras would be a bolder move, but the Astros have not shied away from those in the past, and The Athletic’s report mentions that Houston “went into this offseason with an interest in” Contreras. He would be a dynamic addition to an already strong lineup.
Behind the lefty-righty combo of Barnhart and Casali, the Reds were middle of the pack last season in both offensive production and WAR value behind the plate. But while their situation is not as dire as some, Cincinnati also is clearly in win-now mode, after the recent signing of Mike Moustakas. Adding Contreras would be one way to address what was a bottom-10 offense in 2019, and the Reds potentially could then flip Barnhart or Casali in another deal. However, it’s worth wondering how the Cubs would feel about dealing Contreras within their division.
The Rays lost d’Arnaud, a surprisingly significant contributor to the 2019 club. They chose to retain Zunino, rather than non-tendering him after a highly disappointing season in which he hit .165/.232/.312. Tampa Bay could sign a backup and simply hope Zunino rebounds, but Contreras would bring a far greater sense of certainty for a club that has to fight the Yankees in the AL East. The Rays have the necessary prospect capital, and Contreras would appeal to their budget.
The Rockies tied for the third-lowest offensive production from the catcher position last year, going by park-adjusted wRC+ (61). Iannetta got released in August, and Wolters hit one home run in 411 plate appearances, while slugging .329 despite his home park. This is a team that needs more punch in its lineup generally, and Contreras would be a big swing toward that goal coming off last season’s 20-game dropoff to 71 wins.
Here’s a wild card. The Bronx Bombers sit toward the bottom of the list of teams that need another big bat, or specifically a catcher. After all, Sánchez has even more power and offensive upside than Contreras, and is one of the few who can match his throwing arm behind the plate. With that said, Sánchez has averaged 98 games over the past two seasons while spending time on the injured list in both. New York has been known to strengthen a strength, and having Sanchez and Contreras would keep both fresh, while the DH spot could keep both in the lineup on many days (Contreras also has played a bit of outfield and first base before). This would be a luxury acquisition, but a good one.