Why Cubs free agent Willson Contreras faces winter waiting game

Why Willson Contreras free agency looks like waiting game originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

LAS VEGAS — After four days of GM meetings chatter with agents and MLB executives, perhaps the two biggest indicators of Willson Contreras’ free agent market have become clear:

The July trade market.

And this one.

Contreras, who is expected in the coming days to turn down Thursday’s qualifying offer from the Cubs, is the top free agent catcher of the winter — one of the game’s top offensive players at the position and the National League starter in three of the last four All-Star games.

RELATED: Cubs make Willson Contreras qualifying offer

But criticism of his receiving skills persisted among execs at the GM meetings, with one calling him a better-hitting version of bat-first catcher Gary Sanchez.

It was one of the reasons the Cubs believe they found what one source called a “tepid” market when they shopped him hard in the weeks leading up to the Aug. 2 trade deadline. Another big reason was the general hitter-market slowdown created by the Nationals’ eventual decision to trade Juan Soto — who was traded to the Padres, who were early suitors for Contreras.

Either way, when an agreed-to deal to send Contreras to Houston for pitcher José Urquidy was nixed by Astros ownership (at manager Dusty Baker’s suggestion) the day before the deadline, the Cubs were left with nowhere to turn to find a trade of value with less than 24 hours to go.

Maybe the Cubs overplayed their hand with some teams.

They certainly didn’t do Contreras — their starting catcher as a rookie in the 2016 World Series — any favors. The qualifying offer will tie him to draft-pick compensation and add one more damper to his best career shot at landing his best contract.

He’s still in position to command a strong multiyear deal, especially in a climate of catching scarcity. He’s a competitive, edgy player with a winning pedigree and a drive to continue improving.

Houston remains interested and met with Contreras’ representatives during the GM meetings this week.

And the Cardinals are keeping that option open as they explore how to best backfill for the retirement loss of future Hall of Fame catcher Yadier Molina —even as they grieve the loss in particular of Molina’s impact behind the plate.

“We know we’re not going to replace Yadi,” Cardinals baseball operations president John Mozeliak said. “He was a defensive savant. But we don’t want to take a huge step back defensively because our team is centered around defense.

“And the other thing that sort of goes unseen,” he added, “is that Yadi was so good on helping with game prep, game strategy, obviously in-game decisions with the pitcher. His baseball IQ was incredible.

“How do you backfill for that or replace it? That’s something internally we have to work through.”

When told one industry insider suggested the Cards were the early favorites for Contreras, Mozeliak said, “Is that a compliment?”

Regardless, it’s too early to know where the Cards will land in their efforts to fill that sizable hole in their team.

“We’re gonna explore the trade market and understand what that looks like,” he said. “Certainly, we’re going to try to understand what the free agent market looks like.

“It’s hard to truly understand the market yet.”

Executives from both leagues predicted this week that the trade market for catchers will play out before Contreras’ market gets sorted out, with speculation focused on whether Oakland makes Gold Glove catcher Sean Murphy available and Toronto dealing from the trio of Danny Jansen, Gabriel Moreno or even All-Star Alejandro Kirk.

The White Sox, for instance, got terrible production from their $73 million catcher, Yasmani Grandal, who’s heading into the final year of his four-year contract at a time the Sox are at an important crossroads for re-establishing their competitive window.

And GM Rick Hahn said he expects to make his most significant additions through trades as opposed to free agency this winter.

“Do we have to add a catcher to accomplish what we want to do next year?” he said. “No.

“Do we have to get better at various positions? Yes. And certainly that was one area we underperformed. … It’s an area we can stand improvement, whether that comes externally or internally.”

It’s also an area he’s getting an earful from fans about, including at both airports on his travels to the GM meetings.

“Once at O’Hare and once even at [McCarron Airport in Vegas] when I was getting my bag, I had various fans tell me that catcher was an area we need to improve at,” he said. “So word is out on that.”

So is the jury on Contreras’ strength in the marketplace.

Some in the Cubs organization even wonder if he’ll wind up back with the club on a lesser-than-anticipated deal — though it doesn’t seem like anybody actually expects that.

And that’s certainly not on the minds of anyone on the other side of that equation.

One piece of loose speculation during the meetings linked Contreras to the Tigers based on their need and the recent hiring of former Cubs assistant GM Scott Harris to run baseball ops there.

But when asked about his roster priorities this winter, Harris rattled off three position areas that were not catcher.

“Catching is an area where we can improve, but there are a lot of areas on this roster we can improve,” Harris said, adding that the Tigers have some prospects that project as possible long-term solutions to the need, implying that a long-term addition might not be a fit.

“The catching position across the game is really difficult to evaluate,” he added. “It seems like catching additions are scarce, certainly in free agency, year over year.”

That general scarcity would obviously figure to help Contreras’ market position.

It just might take a while.

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