For much of the offseason, the plan of the Chicago Cubs seemed pretty clear: trade anyone of value and start building toward the future.
We saw that approach in the Yu Darvish deal that brought back a package of far-off high-risk, high-ceiling prospects, the non-tendering of Kyle Schwarber and the fact the team let Jon Lester walk rather than pay him a few million dollars, despite being in dire need of pitching.
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The course of action is a bit less clear now given the team’s recent signing of Joc Pederson and Trevor Williams. But the team is clearly standing with their toes over the edge of the abyss in regards to a rebuild.
The Cubs have actively shopped guys like Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras for months on-end. Moving Bryant, a former MVP coming off the worst season of his career, seems like a pure cost-cutting move given his $19.5 million salary. But it’s a totally different story with Contreras, who is one of the best catchers in the game and has two years of team control remaining.
It’s been a long time since Chicago boasted a young catcher like this – capable of locking down the position for the foreseeable future. But that might not be enough to get the front office to lock Contreras up with a long-term contract given his obvious attractiveness to prospective trade partners.
Does Willson Contreras have more value as a trade chip or a part of the future?
A two-time All-Star, the 28-year-old backstop notably improved in terms of pitch framing last year, which had long been considered a weak spot in his game. Paired with his cannon of an arm, you can make the case that another solid defensive season accompanied by his usual strong numbers at the dish could make him one of the most highly-regarded players in all of baseball next winter.
But that’s when the Cubs come to a fork in the road. Do they decide he’s one of their building blocks and lock him up in the weeks to come? Seems unlikely. A trade of Contreras would be devastating for the 2021 club given Victor Caratini is now a member of the Padres and there is little to no depth behind the dish.
Any move involving the Chicago catcher right now would likely net a stronger return given his two years of team control. Even another All-Star showing in 2021 won’t guarantee the Cubs more in a trade next winter – which brings us (again) back to the final weeks of the current offseason.
On one hand, I’d like to think Contreras has done more than enough to show Chicago he’s a long-term solution and not part of any stagnation problem. On the other, the Cubs, organizationally-speaking, are deep behind the plate and could look to capitalize and build for the future. No player on this team would bring back more in return than a trade of the power-hitting fan favorite.
But if you’re trying to thread the needle, you can’t miss on the return in a trade. It has to bring back blue-chip prospects – period. If that’s not the case, the team is better off locking him up long-term and finding other ways to focus on the future.