What can Cubs expect from the catcher position now that Willson Contreras is gone?

Colorado Rockies v Chicago Cubs
Colorado Rockies v Chicago Cubs / Michael Reaves/GettyImages

Since 2016, Willson Contreras had been a staple for the Cubs, appearing in 734 regular season games during that span - 626 of them behind the dish. Three All-Star selections and a World Series ring later, he now has a new goal: being a major thorn in the side of his former team after signing a five-year deal with the rival Cardinals this offseason.

Under Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins, Chicago is embarking in a very new direction behind the plate, prioritizing defensive work, game-calling and other intangibles over offensive production. They're placing a ton of faith in two veterans - Yan Gomes, who returns in 2023 for his second year on the North Side and two-tim Gold Glover Tucker Barnhart, who signed a one-year, $3.25 million deal with a player option for 2024 this winter.

All this means the catcher position will look very different - and contribute differently - than it has in some time. Let's dive in on what Gomes and Barnhart are expected to contribute, while also casting a cursory glance south at what Contreras could do as Yadier Molina's successor in St. Louis.

Cubs hope game-calling will help their young pitchers blossom

Last season, Gomes outpaced Contreras in terms of pitcher performance - with a 3.66 ERA behind the plate compared to Contreras' 3.96 mark. That may not seem like a dramatic difference, but it was on full display when it came to the starting rotation - which spearheaded the Cubs' second-half surge. Here are just a couple examples:

  • Justin Steele w/ Contreras - 4.11 ERA in 116 IP / 1.36 ERA in 39.2 IP w/ Gomes
  • Kyle Hendricks w/ Contreras - 5.96 ERA in 45.1 IP / 2.83 ERA in 35 IP w/ Gomes
  • Adrian Sampson w/ Contreras - 3.86 ERA in 37.1 IP / 2.41 ERA in 37.1 IP w/ Gomes
  • Keegan Thompson w/ Contreras - 4.68 ERA in 42.1 IP / 3.24 ERA in 58.1 IP w/ Gomes
  • Marcus Stroman w/ Contreras - 2.79 ERA in 61.1 IP / 2.98 ERA in 45.1 IP w/ Gomes

In 2022, Contreras ranked in the 25th percentile for framing, according to Baseball Savant. Meanwhile, Gomes checked in at the 33rd percentile and Barnhart, the 44th. The big downgrade defensively in 2023 will be in regards to pop time: Contreras ranked at the 80th percentile, with both of the Cubs backstops at or below the 50 percent mark.

The Cubs are clearly prioritizing consistency and stability behind the dish moving forward. While Contreras' glovework ebbed and flowed with his offensive production, Gomes and Barnhart are heading to Mesa this month with a plan of making life as easy as possible for pitchers, aligning on strategy with a goal of it not mattering which of them is catching on any given day because they're so in-sync.

"I talked with Yan about it. I want our guys on the mound to, outside of the gear we're wearing or what we look like, to not know who's back there. I think that's when pitching staffs reach the highest potential, because we're all on the same page. They trust us. "

Tucker Barnhart, Cubs catcher

Offensively, there's going to be a significant drop-off. Know that. Come to terms with it. Move forward. The Cubs are focused on preventing runs, as opposed to trying to power their way to the postseason. With the potential for six former Gold Glovers in the Opening Day starting lineup and an elite defense up the middle, there's no questioning what the plan is here.

Next. 3 Cubs who will improve in 2023 and 2 more who won't. dark

So when it comes to the Cubs and the catching position, at least in 2023, expect a stabilizing presence in the form of two proven veterans who might come up short in regards to offense and their overall ceiling, but have the potential to play a critical role in the development of the team's up-and-coming group of arms while raising the floor.