Tomase: Making the case for the Red Sox to sign Willson Contreras originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
If the Red Sox want to save resources this winter, they could assign catching responsibilities to the tandem of Reese McGuire and Connor Wong.
This approach comes with considerable risk, since McGuire is a career backup and Wong has barely played above Triple A, but they wouldn't even cost $2 million between them, leaving more money to address deficiencies elsewhere, especially on the pitching staff.
There's a case to be made, however, that catcher should be one of their primary targets this offseason, and if they're looking to make an impact in free agency, one name immediately climbs atop the list: Willson Contreras.
The three-time All-Star is a right-handed slugger with the versatility to play the outfield and first base. The 30-year-old just smacked 22 homers in 113 games for a woeful Cubs team, and he has already rejected Chicago's one-year, $19.65 million qualifying offer, which means if the Red Sox sign him, they'll surrender their second and fifth picks in next year's draft, along with $1 million in international bonus money.
That's a steep price to pay for a modern front office, but here's why Contreras would be worth it -- he might be the best offensive catcher in baseball.
The Red Sox need to start replenishing the upper reaches of their roster, especially if they lose shortstop Xander Bogaerts this winter. Filling in around the margins with the likes of Kiké Hernández and Eric Hosmer is fine when you've got a prime Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez manning the heart of the order, but Chaim Bloom won't win in the American League East with a roster full of overachievers.
Keeping pace with the Yankees, Jays, Rays, and (gulp) Orioles is going to require legitimate impact talent, and Contreras fits the bill.
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Since arriving in 2016, he ranks second only to perennial Phillies All-Star J.T. Realmuto among catchers in WAR with 20.8 and he's second to Dodgers standout Will Smith in OPS at .808.
As a rookie in 2016, he backstopped a veteran Cubs staff to a World Series title, and it's also worth noting that his high-energy style made him a fan favorite in Chicago, which is no small consideration with the Red Sox at risk of losing market share in the fight for the attention of Boston sports fans.
The arguments against him come on the defensive side, where he consistently grades as a weak pitch framer, though that deficiency could become irrelevant if MLB adopts robot umpires in the coming years. He's considered an average defender at best, but he does have a strong arm, erasing 30 percent of would-be base stealers lifetime, a skill that could come in handy with rules changes like limited pickoff attempts and larger bases encouraging the running game next season.
Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom told reporters in Las Vegas at the GM meetings, including Alex Speier of the Boston Globe, that the Red Sox prioritize the ability to lead a staff.
"Increasingly in the game -- and we certainly feel this -- the ability to handle the pitching staff is so important," said Bloom. "Now, that doesn't mean there's only one way to get value at the position, but it's certainly something we value, and I think we have a staff that can really take advantage of somebody who's invested in that aspect of the game."
He added that they'll search for upgrades in free agency and on the trade market.
"It's a hard spot to find one guy you can trust, much less more than one," said Bloom. "In any given winter, there's only a handful of players on the free agent market who you see as really good fits at that position. So the trade market is another avenue. I would say that we don't think we'll be looking at a huge group of possibilities there, but there are some possibilities through both avenues."
There's no better bat than Contreras, and even if he's not strong enough defensively to play every day behind the plate, his bat plays anywhere from the outfield to DH. What matters is he's a top-flight talent, and the Red Sox need as many of those as they can get.