Why Willson Contreras carries 'personal motivation' into free agency

Contreras carries 'personal motivation' into free agency originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Of course, it’s personal. How could it not be personal for Willson Contreras?

No extension talks for the three-time All-Star. A hard line by the Cubs in the final year of arbitration for the World Series-championship starting catcher — leaving him to twist in the wind through the first half of the season until an 11th-hour agreement that averted a potentially contentious hearing.

Then trade talks for more than a month, a tearful goodbye to the only team and fan base he has known in the majors — only to go un-traded, which led to another tearful goodbye and hurt.

Mostly hurt. Hurt more than anger.

And then came the qualifying offer that — once he turned it down as expected on Tuesday — saddles his free agency process with draft-pick compensation for any team signing him.

A top-10 free agent by most evaluations, Contreras might not be the top name on the market, the top slugger or the top defender.

But this much is certain: No free agent this winter is more motivated than Contreras.

To win. To win over his next team. And even — if only a little bit — to prove to the Cubs they got this one wrong.

“That is some kind of motivation, like personal motivation, for sure,” he said during a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago as the final day of his Cubs career concluded last month in Cincinnati.

Mostly, he said, the motivation heading into his first experience with free agency “is just about winning. It’s winning.”

That could eventually happen with any of several competitive teams looking to upgrade their catching, from the World Series-champion Astros — who came close to trading for him at the deadline — to the rival Cardinals trying to replace Hall of Fame-bound Yadier Molina.

RELATED: Why Willson Contreras free agency looks like waiting game.

That winning somewhere else could come at the expense of the Cubs, well, that’s just business — the other side of the business coin that cost the Cubs’ most tenured and passionate player so much angst over the past eight months.

The worst might have been the silence when it came to a possible extension to stay — even as he broke out in the first half of the season to earn a third All-Star starting selection, mentored debuting payers such as Chris Morel and Nelson Velázquez and spoke repeatedly about his commitment to the organization and desire to stay.

“I could take that personal,” he said. “But I’m not going to, because I know how this business works.

“But if I was waiting for something like that to happen — I was. I really was waiting for that.”

Contreras admitted he allowed himself to believe the Cubs might approach him about an extension as he got closer to another All-Star bid, and then again “even after the trade deadline,” he said, once he got over the shock of not being moved. Why else would they keep him past the deadline?

“But it didn’t happen,” he said. “So it’s already over.”

Turned out that when the Astros’ Jose Urquidy-for-Contreras, agreed-to deal was nixed by Astros manager Dusty Baker and Astros ownership in the final 20-24 hours before the deadline, the Cubs didn’t have time to rebuild a market they believed would return more than the value of the compensation pick they’ll receive via Contreras’ free agency.

And so it’s over.

After 14 years that began as an amateur third baseman signed out of Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, in the summer of 2009. Before any of the Polo shirts running the team or anybody named Ricketts were anywhere near the organization.

It’s not what he wanted. But even with the qualifying offer attached, Contreras heads into free agency with his best chance of his career for the kind of multiyear deal and security he sought with the Cubs. With a team that wants him, something he called his top priority as a free agent.

RELATED: Contreras seeks ‘somewhere that I’m wanted’ in free agency

As for his legacy with a club that had its most successful run in its history with him behind the plate, “I would say it’s the passion that I have for the game, the energy that I brought every single day, day in and day out, and the love that I have for baseball and the love that I have for the team.

“I think that’s my legacy right there. How hard I play, even through injuries.”

And he put up numbers — in fact the best OPS among catchers since his 2016 rookie year (minimum 1,500 plate appearances).

“And all of that while catching,” he said. “I did everything that I could to be one of the best. And it makes me proud how hard I worked, how hard I put in the work for this team.”

And if that wasn’t good enough for the Cubs to keep him around long enough to contribute to their next competitive core, “They know what they’re doing,” he said.

And he knows he’ll be fine, that it’ll work out for him, maybe even for the best.

“Best for both,” he said. “I grew up here, and when I signed here none of them were here.

“I wish them the best. Like I told them, I don’t have any hard feelings over this.”

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