Cubs: Free agent catchers pale in comparison to Willson Contreras

(Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
(Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images) /

Since the team’s World Series run back in 2016, the Chicago Cubs have enjoyed having one of the more valuable backstops in the game handling duties behind the plate in Willson Contreras.

The 30-year-old catcher earned the third All-Star selection of his career here in 2022, setting himself up for what figures to be a very interesting first foray into free agency. The league-wide expectation leading up to the Aug. 2 trade deadline was that the Cubs would trade him, netting prospects in return. Instead, Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins held onto the fan favorite, all but guaranteeing Contreras will be tied to a qualifying offer this winter.

To the best of our knowledge, there’s been no real progress on the extension front – so now it’s a wait-and-see approach, as Contreras and his agent seek to gauge interest on the open market. Perhaps we’re reading too much into it (or maybe Chicago just had an astronomical asking price in trade talks) – but the fact they’re running out the clock with him rather than moving him at the deadline could indicate a softer market than once thought.

The best option, hands down, if you’re the Cubs, is bringing Contreras back into the fold on a multi-year deal this winter. The drop-off from Contreras and Yan Gomes (with some PJ Higgins sprinkled in, as well) to a Gomes-Higgins, maybe Amaya, combination behind the plate is significant, especially offensively.

Amaya is really the wild card in that scenario. Once a heralded top prospect in the organization, he really hasn’t shouldered a significant workload since 2019 – and has only once caught more than 100 games in any one season (2018). Seemingly healthy, can he re-claim the billing he once had? Perhaps – but you certainly can’t bet on that happening.

Cubs have no alternative other than bringing back Willson Contreras

The problem, then, is there are virtually no impactful free agent catchers available this winter outside Contreras. Names like Austin Hedges, Tucker Barnhart, Gary Sanchez or Mike Zunino hardly inspire a great deal of confidence. That’s not to say you couldn’t piece together a passable group behind the plate, but you’d definitely be taking a step back at the position in 2023.

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The best path forward for the Cubs remains figuring out what it will take to lock Contreras up long-term. He’s a veteran leader who has the respect of the clubhouse and fan base, and he’s shown this season that he can provide a great deal of value even when he’s not behind the plate as the team’s DH.