The Chicago Cubs were supposed to look different by now. Entering the offseason, league sources told CBS Sports they expected the Cubs to break from the Joe Maddon era by listening to (and acting on) offers for their core players. Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to David Ross's first camp in five weeks' time, yet the Cubs remain in neutral. Their biggest offseason additions so far have been relievers, Ryan Tepera and Dan Winkler.
To be fair to the Cubs, they still have time to enliven what's become a stagnant situation. Their inactivity even makes sense in some cases. Third baseman Kris Bryant remains in town in part because of his outstanding grievance concerning the club's service-time manipulation. Bryant isn't expected to win, but good luck trading a player whose team control could be halved. Chicago's sluggishness with catcher Willson Contreras is also understandable, given the gap between what the Cubs want in return and what other teams are willing to hand over.
Conflict is a constant in negotiations -- successful talks culminate when each party has ceded enough to reach a resolution. The clash over Contreras is different because it's foundational.
It may seem irrational that anyone would have reservations about Contreras, a 27-year-old catcher with a career 113 OPS+ and three years of team control left. To certain eyes, he's golden; to others, those less forgiving about his defensive shortcomings, he's pyrite. Consider how Contreras stacks up against one of his peers, whose identity will remain a secret for now. (Note: projected salary comes from MLB Trade Rumors, and framing runs from Baseball Prospectus.)
|Career framing runs
Time for the reveal: the mystery catcher is Omar Narvaez of the Milwaukee Brewers. The same Narvaez who was traded straight-up for a fringe prospect earlier this winter, and who the Tampa Bay Rays once permitted to escape through the minor-league phase of the Rule 5 draft.
Are Contreras and Narvaez equals? No. Contreras hits for more power than Narvaez does and has posted those numbers in hundreds of more plate appearances. Contreras is also superior to Narvaez in the non-framing aspects of catching. The trifling return on Narvaez does highlight the emphasis teams place on receiving, however, and their similarities will make it challenging for the Cubs to convince anyone to sacrifice multiple top prospects for Contreras, who continued to grade as one of the worst framers in baseball last season despite year-to-year improvements in that regard.
It's possible that certain teams view Contreras' framing more favorably than BP's metrics; by that same token, it's possible that he's moved off catcher before he hits free agency. That's a problem because his bat isn't as special elsewhere. Take a look at where his 125 OPS+ last season ranked (or would have ranked) at various positions (min. 300 plate appearances):
- Catcher: 2nd
- First base: 10th
- Corner outfield: 15th
- Designated hitter: 6th
Remember, that's using Contreras' best single-season effort; subbing in his career marks, or a projection, would make him look worse across the board. Perhaps shedding the tools of ignorance would enable him to perform better at the dish, but the difference between playing catcher and playing elsewhere is the difference between elite offense and good-not-great offense. Contreras would still be a welcomed addition to most lineups; he just wouldn't be in the running for the best hitter at his position.
Teams are too cognizant of positional and defensive value for a Contreras trade to net the Cubs a return fit for a star. Perhaps the Cubs can find a counterculture executive, or, at least, one who believes their player-development people can improve Contreras' mitt beyond what the Cubs have been able to do. It seems more likely that the Cubs have held onto Contreras because they know that making a trade isn't always worth it -- not when the return is likely to disappoint.