A very interesting alternative to J.T. Realmuto presented itself this week in Willson Contreras, the Cubs’ productive 28-year-old two-way catcher.
Teams have likely been calling the Cubs all offseason about Contreras, but things could speed up after the trade of Yu Darvish to San Diego. The Cubs are in cost-cutting mode as evidenced by the Darvish trade and Kyle Schwarber non-tender, and it was reported this week by USA Today’s Bob Nightengale that they are “extensively shopping” Contreras.
Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer called that news "fictional" but did say there's been trade interest in Contreras.
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Contreras is one of the best catchers in baseball and has as much offensive upside as Realmuto. His best year was 2019, when he hit .272 with 24 homers, 64 RBI and an .888 OPS.
He’s hit .265/.351/.463 (.814 OPS) in just under 500 career games.
Realmuto has hit .282/.336/.466 (.802 OPS) over the same span.
Realmuto is more accomplished, better at controlling the running game, a better defender and a better baserunner. But the gap isn’t huge, especially when accounting for the fact that Contreras is more than a year younger with 2,200 fewer innings caught at the big-league level. Contreras was one of three NL Gold Glove finalists behind the plate this season, along with Jacob Stallings and the winner, Tucker Barnhart.
The Cubs did not get back any top prospects from San Diego in the Darvish trade. He was owed about $60 million over the next three seasons. Contreras is a different story — he’s arbitration-eligible for two more seasons, projected to make about $6 million in 2021 with a raise the following year. That is significantly less than the expected free-agent price tag for Realmuto, so teams in need of a catcher should be as interested in Contreras as they are in Realmuto.
The Cubs shouldn’t and likely won’t give away Contreras, a very good player at a crucial position entering his prime. They should be able to find a trade partner that sends back either big-league-ready useful piece(s) or prospect(s) of some significance.
Weighing Realmuto’s cost in dollars against the cost for Contreras in dollars and talent, it’s hard to say which would be the better option from a Phillies perspective if Realmuto’s camp is still looking for a record-setting AAV for a catcher and/or a deal north of $125 million.
The Phillies are not flush in top prospects. They graduated their top two to the majors this past season, Alec Bohm and Spencer Howard. They need both. Their top two prospects now are 2020 first-round pitcher Mick Abel and 2019 first-round shortstop Bryson Stott. They’d also have to consider that they just traded a top prospect, Sixto Sanchez, for a catcher less than three years ago.
But there’s no doubt that Contreras is the best Plan B to date in replacing Realmuto. He’s a better overall player with a stronger track record than James McCann, the No. 2 catcher in free agency who signed a four-year deal with the Mets worth just over $40 million.