For weeks, Cubs Nation has been eager for signs of offseason life from the team’s front office when it comes to the pursuit of major players. And then came a tantalizing nugget of a rumor in which a plugged-in Miami source confirmed CI‘s earlier mention of possible mutual interest by the Cubs and Marlins in catchers J.T. Realmuto and Willson Contreras.
Now, I personally don’t love or hate baseball players. At least not since I was a kid and was a sucker for anything with Ryne Sandberg on it. I try to review each player with all good and bad attributes combined, which is why I have few untouchables. It’s all about improving a team’s championship chances.
Thus I don’t have the same attachments or antipathies toward Contreras as some fans do. I love the bat (usually), the athleticism, the arm and the contractual control. But he doesn’t frame or block well, doesn’t hit elite playoff power pitchers, took his foot off the gas last year after achieving his All-Star goal, and says imprudent things to the media about his pitchers.
But given the front office’s over-valuing most of its young bats, I doubted Contreras would ever be realistically in play. If they moved a young player, I assumed it would come from the glut of outfielders.
The Contreras trade rumor, though, caused my brain to spin at the potential genius of upgrading defensively behind the plate. As I wrote in my rotation overview Saturday, Cubs starters are mostly mid-to-low velocity pitchers who live on the edges of the strike zone. This makes pitch framing an important run-prevention and pitch-efficiency skill. It may also be the key element in dropping the bullpen’s stubbornly high non-intentional walk rate.
As CI’s Brendon Miller noted earlier today, Contreras’ defensive stats aren’t trending up. Plus throw in that Contreras hasn’t exactly endeared himself to Yu Darvish, in whom Contreras’ bosses invested $126 million last winter. However, after sleeping on it and a deeper review of Realmuto’s defensive numbers, it appears Realmuto wouldn’t actually be much of a defensive upgrade.Though Realmuto would represent a tangible but small improvement over Contreras’ bottom-of-the-league pitch framing, Realmuto still ranks a bit below average as a pitch framer. But both catchers are fairly similar in terms of blocking and throwing, and Contreras has two more years of control. Throw in Contreras having generally shown himself to be the better hitter (last year excepted), and it’s hard to see why you swap catchers, even if Miami throws in a quality young arm.
All that said, the strategy of improving the pitching staff through better pitch framing is a solid one. It does not address what “broke” in the offense last year, but giving up fewer runs can soften offensive droughts. Plus, trading Contreras elsewhere could certainly return significant pieces for other need areas. If this is indeed something being contemplated, here’s how the top remaining free agents catchers rank:Yasmani Grandal’s pitch framing leaps off the above chart, but his blocking and regular passed balls were definitely issues in the NLCS, costing the Dodgers Game 1 against the Brewers. He is a quality hitter, and can bat from both sides, but he is far better as a lefty. This duplicates Victor Caratini’s splits, so you would probably need to move Caratini and pair Grandal with a right-handed-hitting backup, thus repeating what the Cubs did with Miguel Montero and David Ross in 2015 and ’16.
Another option is Martin Maldonado, who won a Gold Glove in 2017 and ranks in the top third across all defensive categories. At 31 years, he is also two years older than Grandal, but this could translate into a more reasonable contract. In the interest of full disclosure, he is also fairly punchless with a career .639 OPS a general lack of on-base skills.
If left to me, I’d certainly entertain all offers for Contreras to see what he could return. He potentially could bring back a couple quality back-end bullpen arms, a prized leadoff hitter, and/or a more advanced starting pitching prospect.
But any trade would be contingent on 1.) Maldonado being available on a reasonable two- to three-year contract, and 2.) opening enough payroll to still go after a mid-tier free agent. This could perhaps be achieved by requiring inclusion of Brandon Kintzler’s guaranteed $5 million in any Contreras trade, though such a demand would lessen the return.
However, if you can’t upgrade defensively behind the plate with significantly improved pitch framing and blocking, I don’t see why you make any catching change. So perhaps the best course of action is to hope Contreras rights the ship with his bat and his pitching staff relationships.