It seems all but assured the designated hitter will be coming to the National League in 2022.
Which raises the question: How much will that improve the Cubs catching?
As far as Willson Contreras goes, it could at least be an avenue for the Cubs to help him stay fresh while keeping his productive bat in the heart of the lineup.
“I think he's an elite offensive player,” Cubs president Jed Hoyer said of Contreras this month. “But it's hard to be an elite offensive player when your legs are gone.”
Contreras took on a heavy workload in 2021 as the Cubs cycled through eight backup catchers, many beset by injuries. Despite missing a month with a knee sprain, he finished seventh in baseball in innings caught (935 2/3).
Of the 141 games Contreras was eligible to play — he went on the IL on the last day of the season — he played in 128, catching in 116 of them.
More than anything, the Cubs’ 2021 catching situation demonstrated the importance of getting Contreras time off. And that’s where the DH comes in.
The DH is expected to be added to the National League in 2022 as part of the current collective bargaining agreement negotiations.
With a DH in play, the Cubs could give Contreras a reprieve from the daily grind of catching from time to time without losing his offense.
“With Willson, I think he played too much. I would just say that directly,” Hoyer said.
“[Cubs manager David Ross] and I talked about it throughout the year. It was hard to not play Willson a lot, but he definitely got worn down.”
On occasion in the past, the Cubs have started Contreras in the outfield to get him out of his crouch. But there’s obviously wear and tear that comes with playing anywhere in the field.
With a DH, all he would have to worry about is hitting, and his bat may be more valuable to the Cubs now more than ever.
Contreras has been a key cog in the Cubs lineup since making his debut five years ago, generating MVP buzz at times in addition to starting back-to-back All-Star Games from 2018-19.
He’s the lone All-Star left from their former core after the trades of Kris Bryant, Javy Báez and Anthony Rizzo this summer, and his value was especially evident after the deadline.
Contreras posted an overall .237/.340/.438 slash line, all below his career averages. But he finished strong after returning from the knee sprain, slashing .294/.375/.544 in September/October.
For his part, Contreras called the possible addition of the DH “awesome” at the end of the season.
“Obviously I’m a guy that wants to play every single day, but I also understand that my body needs rest,” Contreras said the final weekend of the season. “Catching nine innings every single day — night and then day games — is not easy.”
The DH could present the best of both worlds, allowing Contreras to play closer to every day and get the necessary rest for someone who plays such a grueling position.
And by extension, the Cubs could keep him in the lineup while managing his workload, which should only help him maintain his offensive production.
DH or no DH, the backup catcher job is high on Hoyer’s offseason to-do-list.
“That's something that we have to really focus on this offseason, is building a roster and setting it up to make sure that we can keep Willson as an elite offensive player,” Hoyer said.
“You play a guy too much and eventually the nicks and dings of catching, the fatigue of your legs and things like that are going to reduce your impact.
“I think that’s really important. We knew given the backup catching struggles that that was happening as we went. But it was something that was sort of unavoidable in a lot of ways and hopefully we can remedy that going into next year.”