It became clear at the end of the 2020 season that the Chicago Cubs were looking to make a few changes to mix things up with the core of their roster that remains from the 2016 championship team. The last four years have not finished the way the Cubs would like, and their offense has become too predictably boom-or-bust. There is no questioning the talent and character in the Cubs lineup, but they simply haven’t been able to consistently get it done over the past few years.
There is a sense of urgency for the Cubs not only because of the ages of their star players, but also their contracts.
Anthony Rizzo is also in a year-to-year situation right now; the Cubs picked up the $16.5 million option for their leader and Gold Glove first baseman on Halloween. Rizzo is entering the final year of a seven-year, $41 millon contract. Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber are all set to become free agents in 12 months.
So how to they mix things up and get back into the mix for a championship while some of this roster is still here?
Here’s our bold prediction: the Cubs trade catcher Willson Contreras to the New York Yankees.
Why trade Contreras now?
First, let’s consider the market for a dynamic catcher like Contreras.
JT Realmuto is considered by almost everyone to be the top free agent on the market this winter. In his free agent predictions published at The Athletic on Tuesday morning, former MLB GM Jim Bowden gave Realmuto a contract prediction of six years and $134 million.
The all-star catcher, who will turn 30 in March, hit 25 home runs in a 145 games last year for Philly and then knocked 11 out of the yard in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He posted a .820 and .840 OPS in his two seasons with the Phillies and is a career 111 OPS+ player who won the Silver Slugger behind the plate in 2018 and 2019.
In February of 2019 the Marlins traded Realmuto to the Phillies in a blockbuster deal for catcher Jorge Alfaro, starter Sixto Sanchez, minor league pitcher Will Stewart (minors) and international bonus slot money. Alfaro was acquired to be a potential starting catcher for the Marlins, and has a lot of potential behind the plate. But the real chip in the deal was Sanchez.
At the time, Sanchez was 21st overall ranked prospect according to MLB Pipeline and a player many organizations coveted. Sanchez backed up the hype when he was called up by the Marlins this season, making seven starts. He struck out 33 in 39.0 innings and then showed off his 100+ mph fastball and insane breaking balls against the Cubs in a playoff start at Wrigley Field.
Contreras is 14 months younger than Realmuto and has two remaining years of arbitration eligibility. He hit 24 home runs in 2019 and 7 this year and is a career 113 OPS+ player – a very strong comp for Realmuto. But with more control – which makes him incredibly valuable as a trade chip at an important position.
Once Realmuto signs, especially in this market where some teams are as concerned/more worried about the luxury tax as they are about their on-field product (sorry, Red Sox fans), Contreras would be the biggest name available if the Cubs were indeed willing to move the top tier backstop.
There are two more questions that need to be addressed when considering this prediction.
The biggest question for the Cubs to answer is: why trade Contreras?
Organization depth is the first place to look. Victor Caratini is certainly a viable catcher at the big league level and would likely become the starter if Contreras is dealt (unless the Cubs do something in free agency).
Chicago also has Miguel Amaya on the way. The 21-year-old Venezuelan has been compared to Contreras, though he played the 2019 season with Myrtle Beach (A+). He may need one more year of seasoning to be ready to be a regular contributor in the big leagues, but isn’t far away.
Which brings us to this year’s free agent class. The Cubs could make an offer to keep James McCann in Chicago, switching from the White Sox to the Cubs. He worked with Lucas Giolito a lot, including catching his no-hitter this season, and is a finalist for an American League Gold Glove this year; his replacement, Yasmani Grandal, is also a finalist for the Gold Glove and will be the primary backstop for the South Side in ’21. McCann on a two-year deal to buy Amaya time would be a great move for the Cubs and could also be less expensive than Contreras this year; Bowden predicted McCann, 30, would get $14 million for two years in free agency this year while Contreras made $6.2 million in 2020.
So why the Yankees?
The Yankees have a catcher who has been an all-star in the past. But it appears they’re ready and willing to be done with Gary Sanchez as a catcher. He’s had plenty of issues receiving the ball and his offense hasn’t been as good in the past couple seasons as the Yankees need it to be to justify him being behind the plate.
The Yankees also need to hurry up and get their roster right. They just watched division rival Tampa Bay in the World Series, and have watched the Red Sox win the World Series since they last got to the Series. The Blue Jays are coming on strong and fast as well with a talented young core and pitching for days.
There’s also the matter of remaining the big dog in their own city. The Yankees have never had a problem spending money. But now that billionaire Steve Cohen’s ownership bid for the Mets has been approved, the Yankees have to legitimately worry about the “other” team in the city spending big money as well.
So they need a catcher, have a good prospect pipeline and need to make a bold move to win while they can still afford Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres with Gerrit Cole being their big ticket signing a year ago.
What would the Cubs want from the Yankees? The Phillies made the Realmuto deal with two years of control, which is the same situation a team would be in with Contreras now. So using that as a comp, the Cubs should be able to ask for at least one top tier pitching prospect and potentially a MLB roster player with another arm in the mix as well.
The young arm the Cubs should target is Deivi Garcia, who will turn 22 six days after Contreras celebrates his 29th birthday in May. He made his major league debut earlier this year and has electric stuff like Sixto Sanchez. Chicago should also ask for Clarke Schmidt, who also made his big league debut this season. Both of those young pitcher could factor into the Cubs rotation in 2021 where both Jon Lester and Jose Quintana could be gone this winter.
Chicago should also target outfielder Clint Frazier, who has been the odd man out in the Yankees outfield for far too long. He got a taste of the big leagues this season and performed well enough to be a consideration for left field on a daily basis for the Cubs.
If the Cubs could get those three young player from the Yankees, the deal would be intriguing.