This is not what Willson Contreras signed up for.
Or even saw coming.
Not losing baseball, not a trade-deadline purge of talent that led to a 9-21 spiral since, and certainly not a full-blown rebuilding period.
And if the Cubs want to sign him up beyond next year, the team’s most valuable player wants to know exactly what it is he’ll be signing up for.
“If they want to rebuild around me, that’s going to be a conversation overall,” said Contreras, whose team is seven losses away, with more than a month to play, from his first career losing season.
To reverse that anytime soon, it’s going to take a significant effort by the team to add talent over the winter, most likely through free agency — and especially starting pitching.
And “I know that,” Contreras said during a conversation this week with NBC Sports Chicago. “Let’s see what happens. We still have a few more games to go and then see what happens in the offseason. If there is mutual interest, I would be open to talking and see what their plan is and what would be good for the team.”
Despite how comments he made soon after the deadline might have been interpreted, Contreras’ thoughts on the subject of an extension have not changed since he told NBC Sports Chicago in May that he’s not interested in a long-term rebuilding process and would want a few answers before committing to any kind of long-term contract.
“It’s the same,” said Contreras, who’s expected to return from a short-term knee injury in the next few days.
It probably goes without saying that if the Cubs approach Contreras about an extension, that might itself be a sign of a plan to try to win sooner rather than later.
But Contreras’ thinking also might be instructive in understanding what the Cubs face in attracting free agents after blowing up the roster in a process that started with the cost-cutting departures of Yu Darvish and Kyle Schwarber after winning the 2020 National League Central title.
Contreras said he hasn’t heard from anybody upstairs yet — not on extensions (“not at all” this season) or to offer any sense of how the team plans to compete again, or when.
“Nobody knows,” Contreras said, echoing the words of veteran pitcher Kyle Hendricks. “I think the plan is to finish this year the best way we can and look forward to having a really good offseason in the market. I don’t know if they’re going to spend money or not.
“They don’t have those conversations with us.”
They’re certainly not required to.
But while team sources suggest the intent is, indeed, to turn a competitive corner again by next season, team president Jed Hoyer has been conspicuously vague and lacking in substance when talking about it — suggesting he has to wait until the new collective bargaining agreement is completed before knowing what even his next move will be.
As reasonable as that may seem on its face, it leaves a lot of potentially key parts to the plan wondering how long before the Cubs look like a good team again, much less like a big-market team again.
Contreras emphasized that he doesn’t want to leave Chicago, but he’s clearly not ready to trust on spec the only front office he has known during his big-league career.
As for free agents this winter, shortstop Trevor Story of the Rockies and pitcher Carlos Rodón of the White Sox both suggest the North Side remains desirable — with Rodón offering the following caveat:
“I think once they sign that first guy, it’s going to attract a lot of other guys. And they’ll say, ‘Hey, they’ve bought in; they want to win.’ “
The Cubs have a year to work with Contreras before he becomes a free agent. So maybe they can let their actions between now and spring training do their talking when it comes to showing him the plan.
But signing the two-time All-Star early in the process as Hoyer waits out the CBA talks might send a message of credibility to any free agent targets they might have in mind once the checkbook is out.
“I’m not going to say I’m looking forward to becoming a free agent or playing on another team, because I’m with the Cubs, and this is the team that I’ve been playing for the last 13 years,” Contreras said. “But it’s a decision they have to make. And if they want to make it, and they want to build around me, I’ll be fine with that. I’ve always been open to talks.”
Contreras said he doesn’t plan to reach out to the Cubs first.
“I still have one more year under control, and I don’t think it’s going to be me going to them to reach an extension,” he said. “I think it has to be mutual.”
Whether J.T. Realmuto’s five-year, $115.5 million deal with the Phillies in January offers a template for a Contreras deal, what the Cubs’ catcher knows for sure is that he doesn’t like losing.
“It’s a new experience for me,” said Contreras, who debuted in 2016 and started five games behind the plate during the World Series. “We were a winning team [since]. Now that everything’s turned around, we’ve just got to refocus and …”
He sighed deeply and checked in Spanish with the team interpreter to make sure he had the words right.
“And make sure it doesn’t turn into a trend.”
One of the first steps toward making sure of that might be getting Contreras signed to an extension, a value move not only because of his on-field talent but the edge and tone he brings to a clubhouse that may have lost some of its edge in recent years.
Some core players traded at the deadline were criticized privately by team officials for lack of leadership and edge even before this year, and sources hinted at issues in the room at times this year — even before Contreras called out teammates for lack of effort two days before the All-Star break in July.
As much as Contreras calls all those trades at the deadline “really overwhelming,” is it possible it might have been the right time for a change in terms of team culture?
Contreras paused at the question and then laughed a little.
“Man, that’s a tough question,” he said.
“It’s not a bad thing that they trade this guy and got some other prospect from another team, and that obviously they have talent,” said Contreras, falling into a diplomatic tone.
“But the culture starts in the clubhouse for sure. Everything starts there,” added Contreras, who doesn’t shy from the idea he might be asked to set the tone for the next iteration of a Cubs competitive core. “The chemistry that we have, or that we want to have, it has to be for 365 days. It can’t be for 120 days and then not for another 80 days.
“For me, everything’s about sticking together and all the players being on the same plan. That’s going to create a winning culture.”
And maybe that’s something that wasn’t happening as much anymore?
“You can say that.”
What the Cubs have to say about it — about Contreras’ value on and off the field, and about what they do next with a rebuild they won’t call a rebuild?
“We’ll see what happens,” Contreras said.