Chicago Cubs: Is Willson Contreras the team’s most valuable trade chip?

(Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
(Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images) /
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After a second-straight All-Star selection, Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras has a great deal of value – both moving forward and as a trade asset.

The offseason of change is upon us. After the Chicago Cubs decided to move on from manager Joe Maddon, the front office made one thing abundantly clear: the days of complacence are over. At least, that’s what president of baseball operations Theo Epstein told the media in his press conference on Monday at Wrigley Field.

Now is the time for action. Last year, Epstein said similar things after the team collapsed and lost in the NL Wild Card game. Then, the offseason was largely spent maintaining the status quo because of the budget was handicapped by ownership and poor decision-making in past years in contracts that simply haven’t paid off.

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I don’t think this will be another winter of incremental change. We’re not talking about signing a guy like Daniel Descalso or bringing back a Cole Hamels. The Cubs need to shake things up and breathe life into an organization that has fallen short of expectations annually since winning the World Series three years ago.

Epstein made one thing clear: anything goes this time around.

"“I don’t believe in untouchables, I never have,” Epstein told The Athletic  (subscription required). “I just think there are obviously players who are really hard to move, but you’re just doing the organization a disservice if you close (a door). It’s hard enough to engage in trade discussions, why would you want to create a subset of players that you can’t even talk about. That’s just something we won’t do.”"

While he may maintain that any player is on the table, I have trouble believing the Cubs would part ways with two guys: Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez. Aside from those two, though? I genuinely believe that Epstein would be open to listening on any other player on the roster – including catcher Willson Contreras.

Despite his defensive shortcomings (namely pitch framing), the 27-year-old backstop turned in another well above-average campaign in 2019. Contreras set a career-best with a 125 OPS+ and set several other personal highs, despite playing in just 105 games due to injury. He threw out 29 percent of base stealers – three percent above the league average – and continued to play the game with an intense passion.

Chicago has control over Contreras for three more seasons via the arbitration process. He’s set to hit free agency ahead of the 2023 season, meaning he represents a long-term piece for the club.

But what if they decided to address their other needs (center field, second base, pitching staff) by dealing their standout catcher? It would take the right deal, but given the number of holes Epstein has to fill this offseason, it makes more sense than one might think.

The biggest factor that makes me think he could be on the trading block is the emergence of Victor Caratini this season. He broke out in a big way, putting up a 104 OPS+ while filling in for Contreras. He came back from a broken hamate bone in his hand to turn in the best season of his professional career.

Make no mistake, Caratini is nowhere near the player Contreras is. I recognize and accept that. This winter’s free agent class has a bevy of veteran backstops, so the Cubs could, theoretically, go out and supplement Caratini with another catcher to make sure they’re covered.

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I love Willson Contreras – but this is an offseason that will be defined by tough decisions. Trading Contreras obviously falls in that category – but it might be a move that goes a long way in helping Chicago get back to the postseason in 2020.

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