We’ve reached the point in the offseason where speculation reigns king. Where are the top free agents going to land? Will we see any major trades go down?
After a disappointing 2019 campaign, the Cubs roster needs a retooling. The farm system — No. 29 in MLB, according to Baseball America — also needs a boost. Those two factors could mean a member of the team’s core — such as Kris Bryant, Javier Báez or Willson Contreras — will get traded.
While Cubs president Theo Epstein said to take any trade rumors with a "mouthful of salt," ESPN’s Jeff Passan recently reported “multiple teams” believe Contreras will be available for trade this winter. On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Passan discussed further how the Cubs likely will make a significant trade this winter.
“When it comes down to it, [the Cubs] don’t like the club that they’ve got right now and they want to change it up a little bit,” Passan told NBC Sports Chicago. “And that’s understandable considering what they went through last year and the way that the trajectory of the future looks. They’ve got good players still; they’ve got a lot of good players still and I think that they can win next year and that’s a completely reasonable thought.”
According to Passan, Bryant and Contreras would bring back the most in a potential trade, but getting a signifcant package in exchange for either player could be tricky.
“I think that other teams look at the Cubs as wanting to retool their team, and accordingly, they’re going to hold out for lower prices than what the actual value of these guys might be,” Passan said. “And that’s what the difficult part of this offseason is gonna be for the Cubs.
“Can they generate enough of a market for either of those players to make a trade actually worthwhile? They’re not gonna trade guys just to trade them. That would be stupid, that would be foolish, that’s the antithesis of what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are. At the same time, they also recognize that status quo is not something that’s gonna work for this team.”
Contreras has started back-to-back All-Star Games, is under team control through 2022 and is as good of an offensive catcher as any in baseball. If the Cubs decide to shop him, here are three potential trade partners:
San Diego Padres
The Padres haven’t posted a winning season since 2010 and haven’t made the postseason since 2006. But the future is knocking on the door in San Diego; the Padres hold baseball’s No. 1 farm system and have seven top 100 prospects (both according to MLB.com).
The Cubs have two top 100 prospects in Nico Hoerner (No. 47) and catcher Miguel Amaya (No. 90), though the latter is a few years away from the big leagues. The Cubs need to replenish their farm system, and the Padres have the blue-chip prospects the North Siders need.
At the GM Meetings, Padres general manager A.J. Preller admitted San Diego is open to moving some of their prospects to help build a championship-contending ball club.
"You get tied to these players," Preller said. "And you should. You envision each of these guys playing with the Padres, and you have history with them. But you've got to understand at the end of the day, it's about building a championship-level team at the big-league level.
“If you do it the right way, you have multiples at different spots. Not everybody is going to be able to play for the Padres."
The Cubs must gauge the Padres’ interest in Contreras. While starting pitcher MacKenzie Gore — San Diego’s top prospect — will be untouchable in trade talks, the Padres could be open to trading:
-Infielder Luis Urias (MLB.com’s No. 20 prospect),
-Outfielder Taylor Trammell (No. 30)
-Right-handed starter Luis Patino (No. 33)
-Shortstop CJ Abrams (No. 48)
-Second baseman/shortstop Xavier Edwards (No. 78)
-Left-handed starter Adrian Morejon (No. 87)
Abrams and Edwards are currently blocked by franchise cornerstones Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado at shortstop and third base, respectively. Tatis is a 20-year-old phenom who hit .317/.379/.590 with 22 home runs in 84 games before going down for the season in August with a back injury. Machado signed a 10-year, $300 million deal last offseason.
The Padres wouldn’t give away Abrams or Edwards because of Tatis and Machado’s presences alone. However, as the Cubs did in 2016 and 2017, San Diego could use their stacked farm system to acquire impact big league talent in an attempt to win in 2020 and beyond. Padres 24-year-old catcher Francisco Mejía could also be expendable in a Contreras trade.
The Cubs are discussing a long-term contract extension with shortstop Javier Báez and are targeting upgrades at second base and center field upgrades this offseason. Hoerner proved he should be part of the picture in 2020, but that shouldn’t stop the Cubs from trying to acquire the talented prospects the Padres hold.
Tampa Bay Rays
Catcher will be a priority for the Rays this offseason, whose depth chart in 2019 featured Travis d’Arnaud and Mike Zunino.
“Determining what the catcher position will look like for us in 2020 is an obvious focus,’’ Rays GM Erik Neander said at the GM Meetings. “Beyond that, we’d love to find a way to score a lot more runs without sacrificing run prevention.''
The Rays have one of MLB’s lowest payrolls each season and that figure is projected to be $74 million in 2020 (per Roster Resource). d’Arnaud is a free agent this winter, and while he played a huge role in the Rays making the postseason in 2019, he could be too expensive for Tampa Bay to retain. The same is true about Zunino, who’s projected to make $4.9 million via arbitration.
d’Arnaud put up respectable numbers— .263/.323/.459 slash line, 16 home runs, 67 RBIs — in 92 games after the Rays acquired him from the Dodgers in May. Zunino, a stellar pitch framer, posted a rough .165/.232/.312 line in 90 games.
Contreras missed a month with a right hamstring strain and still had one of his finest seasons offensively: .272/.355/.533 with 24 home runs and 64 RBIs in 105 games. His pitch framing needs work — Contreras’ -4 RszC (runs saved by catcher framing) tied for No. 94 in MLB in 2019. Zunino (4 RszC) tied for No. 10, while d’arnaud (1) tied for No. 28.
“The questions about framing are legitimate and are fair,” Passan said of Contreras. “But there’s also the notion that by the time 2021 rolls around with the new collective bargaining agreement, there could potentially be an automated balls and strike system in place. And if that’s there, then pitch framing all of a sudden isn’t nearly as important for catchers as it is right now. And then you’re dealing with a guy who’s arguably the best hitting catcher in baseball right now.
"I think Willson Contreras’ value is still really good.”
So, Contreras’ biggest weakness will matter less in the near future. He’d be a major offensive upgrade for the Rays, who scored 769 runs in 2019 (tied No. 15 in MLB; tied No. 7 in the AL). He’s projected to make $4.5 million in arbitration in 2020, extremely reasonable for his offensive production.
The Rays have the No. 2 farm system in baseball, according to MLB.com, so they have the prospect capital to acquire Contreras. The group includes:
-Second baseman/shortstop Vidal Brujan (No. 41),
-Lefty starter Matthew Liberatore (No. 44)
-Right-handed starter Brent Honeywell (No. 75) — note: Honeywell underwent season-ending surgery on fractured elbow in June
-Righty starter Shane Baz (No. 96)
The Rays could find themselves in a precarious payroll situation next offseason when Contreras’ salary goes up. Since they’re looking to address the catcher spot and score more runs, acquiring Contreras would check both boxes.
You’re probably thinking there’s no way the Cubs trade one of their All-Star players to a division rival, right? Especially not to an up-and-coming Reds team which was a pain in the Cubs’ neck in 2019 (Cincinnati won the season-series 11-8).
Epstein said at the GM Meetings the Cubs have no qualms trading with NL Central foes. We shouldn’t expect them to enter trade talks with the Cardinals (the two clubs haven’t made a deal since July 2007) or the Brewers, whose farm system is ranked last in MLB by Baseball America (the Cubs are No. 29).
The Reds are an intriguing possibility. The Cubs have struggled to develop starting pitching under Epstein’s regime, and three of the Reds top four prospects (per MLB.com) are starting pitchers:
-Righty starter Hunter Greene — note: Greene, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft, had Tommy John surgery in April
-Left starter Nick Lodolo — No. 7 pick in 2019
-Righty starter Tony Santillan
Meanwhile, the Reds are looking to upgrade their offense this winter after scoring 701 runs in 2019, No. 25 in MLB and No. 12 in NL.
“I think the offense was probably … it was a shortcoming,” Reds president Dick Williams said at the GM Meetings. “There were a lot of close games that we lost that could have flipped the other way. So, offense is an area we want to address, we want to improve.”
The Reds offense was affected by Joey Votto’s down 2019 (for his standards) — .261/.357/.411 slash line, 15 homers, 47 RBIs. Whether that’s the new norm for Votto, now 36, is to be determined. Contreras would be an offensive upgrade over Reds starting catcher Tucker Barnhart, who hit .231/.328/.380 with 11 homers in 2019. So, done deal, right? Not exactly.
The Reds have as formidable of a rotation in all of baseball, led by Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray. Between injuries and ineffectiveness, there’s no such thing as having too much pitching. The Cubs saw this firsthand in 2019, when every starter dealt with various injuries, minus José Quintana.
Still, Bauer is a free agent after 2020 and Gray is signed through 2022 (with a club option for 2023). The Reds are all-in on winning now and Contreras would help them do so. If they can acquire him without mortgaging their future, a deal would make sense for them and the Cubs, division rivals or not.
Whether it's the Reds or any team, the Cubs don't only need to target prospects. Contreras could bring back big-league players to fill the Cubs needs across the diamond.
With a retooling in order, a depleted farm system and backup catcher Victor Cartaini now a vital piece of the team, dealing Contreras would make a lot of sense for the Cubs moving forward.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.