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Mariners 2022 trade target: Willson Contreras

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How big do you want to go at backstop, exactly?

Cincinnati Reds v Chicago Cubs
when another team has an above-average catcher
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Last week Connor examined the black hole that was the Mariners’ catching corps in 2021 and made the measured suggestion of signing Yan Gomes. I am here today to make a much less measured suggestion, but one with potentially way more upside: that the Mariners acquire C Willson Contreras from the Cubs. (Go read Connor’s piece first if you haven’t, to get a sense of what the Mariners catching corps did in 2021, then come back here for more catcher talk.)

First of all, let’s talk about why the Cubs would give up one of the top backstops in the game over the past few years, if they even would. Contreras is on his last year of team control before hitting free agency in 2023, so the Cubs have two options: extend him as part of their next core and attempt to quick-rebuild around him, or trade him. Okay, they technically have three options: punt the decision and ride out the final year of team control hoping for better results than 2021 with a team made up of Quad-A players and prospects, maybe trading him at the deadline if things go badly. But that is the most cowardly of the three options, both angering a fanbase that wants to see Contreras extended and potentially leaving higher-tier prospects on the table. This path also involves paying Contreras the ~$10M he’ll probably earn at the arbitration table this year, making an “in for a penny, in for a pound” approach even more logical.

Alternatively, the Cubs could choose to extend Contreras, who will play in his age-30 season with close to 4400 MLB innings behind the plate, including a 2018 season where he led all catchers in innings played. To do so would certainly earn some goodwill among the Cubs fanbase, frustrated with the teams’ recent failures and the fire sale they underwent at this year’s trade deadline, and back up Jed Hoyer’s promise that this will be a quick facelift rather than a long and painful rebuild. The Cubs certainly have the payroll flexibility to take on a multi-year contract that would satisfy Contreras’s camp, and Contreras could serve as a mentor to prospect Miguel Amaya, who is probably a couple years out from being able to take over the full catching responsibilities, let alone making the majors. Having sent backup Victor Caratini along in the Yu Darvish trade, and then suffered through a carousel of injuries and ineffectiveness in 2021 that caused great instability at the catching position for the Cubs, it’s not exactly a position of depth in the organization outside Amaya, who is one of their better prospects. The Cubs also have a passel of young pitching prospects arriving in the majors who would benefit from Contreras’s game calling abilities and leadership, for whatever that’s worth.

Yet for all of this, the Cubs’ front office has remained non-committal regarding Contreras’s future with the team. And without a contract, Contreras is, for the Cubs, a quickly depreciating asset who will see the height of his trade value this off-season in a thin market for free agent catchers. (How thin? Thin enough that we all got excited about the concept of Yan Gomes like, a week ago.) It’s possible the Cubs are keeping mum to get a sense of what a Contreras trade market could look like, the same way Dayton Moore likes to dangle players enticingly before snatching back his preciouses. So let’s take a look at who might be bidding on Contreras’s services, and how the Mariners stack up as suitors.

The right fit for Contreras is a win-now team with a need at catcher, preferably not one in the NL Central. The Red Sox could upgrade from Christian Vázquez, who caught the sixth-most innings of all catchers this year, but lack the prospect resources of other teams. Cleveland could also be looking to upgrade their catching situation, as they got very little offensively from Austin Hedges. Toronto could gamble on young Reese McGuire continuing to be fine, but it’s also one of the lone offensive black holes in their lineup. I’ve seen a couple different permutations of Contreras trades, but there’s one main competitor for the Mariners that really makes sense.

Probably you have already read an article about the Yankees trading for Contreras, because the first thing Yankees fans do every off-season is start building a PowerPoint entitled “why it’s Gary Sánchez’s fault the Yankees missed the playoffs.” Sánchez did have a tough time behind the plate this year, at least if you believe Statcast’s Framing Runs, which have Sánchez at -6, fourth-worst in baseball, while being a three-true-outcomes-type player at the plate. (Luis Torrens also had a better caught stealing percentage than Sánchez, if that’s a more compelling argument to you.) Jim Bowden of The Athletic suggested the Yankees trade Sánchez for Contreras, a trade which I’ll use as a building block here:

Chicago Cubs trade C Willson Contreras to New York Yankees for C Gary Sánchez, RHP Deivi García, and RHP Yoendrys Gómez

The reason I like this trade on paper is it satisfies a lot of the Cubs’s needs: they get a replacement catcher with defensive warts but some offensive thump who could probably use a fresh start, and some MLB-adjacent young pitching, which the Cubs desperately need, as they’ve shown no ability to develop that in-house. Meanwhile, the Yankees solve their Gary Sánchez problem with an instant upgrade defensively and little to no falloff offensively, and buy another year for 2020 first-rounder Austin Wells to make it through the upper minors.

Curiously enough, it was Yankees fans in the comments who derided this trade as being way too light on the Yankees’ end, arguing that Sánchez has negative value, and pointing out that García regressed this year, and Gómez is a 22-year-old who hasn’t pitched above A ball. Sánchez is a possible non-tender candidate, but he also hit 23 home runs, which isn’t nothing, although potentially a difficult sell to Chicago if the DH doesn’t come to the NL this year. García’s value has slipped significantly after he took a big step back with his command in 2021, but he remains the Yankees’ 11th-ranked prospect on MLB Pipeline; Gómez is 10th.

Here’s how that trade might look for the Mariners:

Chicago Cubs trade C Willson Contreras to Seattle Mariners for C Tom Murphy, LHP Brandon Williamson

The Mariners can’t offer an offensive thumper like Sánchez to plug up the Cubs’ immediate need for a backstop, but they can offer a far superior defensive catcher in Tom Murphy, who also brings along a little bit of thump of his own if you believe he’s more the 2019 version of the Murph than 2021’s. He also costs significantly less than Sánchez and comes with an extra year of control, if that’s something that matters to the Cubs.

As good as Contreras has been, it’s still buying one year of him, which probably knocks anyone in the Mariners’ top five out as a return (MLB Trade Values says Emerson Hancock for Contreras is an almost-even trade, but that feels like selling incredibly low on a first-round pick, and will be disregarded as an option here). In addition to Murphy, the Mariners could offer LHP Brandon Williamson, who is slightly higher-ranked in the Mariners’ system than either of the Yankees prospects, and is also at the sweet spot for trading players: a year away from Rule 5 eligibility and not taking up a roster spot, yet advanced enough to have logged some innings in the upper minors. MLB Trade Values sees this as being almost even, with each Murphy and Williamson worth around $6M apiece to Contreras’s $14M. Personally, I feel like that valuation undervalues Williamson significantly, and would more prefer a trade that looked like this:

Chicago Cubs trade C Willson Contreras to Seattle Mariners for C Tom Murphy, RHP Juan Then, RHP Levi Stoudt

This trade offers equivalent value to the one above per MLB Trade Values, and feels like a more even trade than sending a pitcher with Williamson’s upside away for one year of Contreras. It’s a quantity vs. quality trade, which are always a little tougher to get off the ground, but the Cubs have been enthusiastic in collecting prospects to rebuild their farm system, and might be persuaded to take two lesser arms than Williamson’s one very good left one. There are different permutations for what names could be subbed in here, but I chose Then and Stoudt as two mid-tier players the Cubs, who train in Arizona but don’t share minor leagues with the Mariners other than Triple-A, have likely seen a fair amount of in spring training, instructional league play, and the AFL.

In return, the Mariners might only be getting a year of Contreras, but it’s a prime year during which the Mariners can still get value on both sides of the plate at the catching position while Cal Raleigh continues to adjust to the majors, or Luis Torrens goes back to catching while Raleigh goes back to Triple-A, or whatever is going to happen, none of which should be Plan A. Plan A should be not having the catcher position be a black hole in the lineup every night, and the easiest way to solve that is to plug in a guy who can do this:

Royal Brougham has had a long, peaceful run of not being terrorized by baseballs ever since Nelson Cruz left. Let’s make it rain baseballs over there again.

Acquiring Contreras solves two problems at once: it shores up the catching position offensively, and provides some right-handed power to a lineup desperately lacking it.

Coming to Seattle could also be a good change of scenery for Contreras, who’s only ever played for the Cubs. Contreras is one of just three players left from the Cubs’ World Series run, the other two being the already-extended Kyle Hendricks and the cement-contracted Jason Heyward. The season started off with the Cubs seemingly taking a step backward, trading off their best pitcher in Yu Darvish, a foreshadowing of moves to come. In June, cameras caught Contreras and teammate Anthony Rizzo having a heated argument in the Cubs dugout, needing to be separated by manager David Ross. In July, Contreras came under fire for some comments he made postgame after a sleepy loss to the Cardinals, noting that everybody seemed “off” and wondering if people were “tired,” attracting the ire of his teammates and manager, who upbraided him to the media, saying it should have been handled “in-house.” Adding to the tension, the Cubs were “nowhere close” to reaching the vaccine threshold, with manager Ross and GM Hoyer both contracting the virus, while Contreras was an outspoken advocate for getting vaccinated, even joining a public health campaign in Chicago. Unfortunately for Contreras, his ability to start over with either a new contract or a new team is out of his control—at least for this year. But if the Cubs should decide they want to sell off even further, the Mariners should be ready and willing buyers.