Free agency commences in a few days, and Willson Contreras will be the unquestioned top backstop available. The career-long Cub is certain to receive and reject a qualifying offer from Chicago while his representatives at Octagon set out in search of a strong multi-year pact.
While clubs can’t formally begin to discuss contract terms with other teams’ free agents until Thursday, they’ve no doubt identified players of interest with the offseason underway. A few teams outside of Chicago have already loosely emerged in the Contreras market. Jon Morosi of MLB.com tweeted this morning the Tigers have interest in the three-time All-Star, while Jon Heyman of the New York Post (Twitter link) hears the Astros are contemplating a free agent pursuit.
It’s easy to see the link in both cases. Detroit is led by first-year president of baseball operations Scott Harris, who worked in the Cubs front office through the end of the 2019 season. Harris’ familiarity with Contreras doesn’t on its own give Detroit much of a leg up in free agency, but there’s a clear opportunity for them to pursue catching help. Detroit sees Tucker Barnhart hit free agency, and he looks unlikely to return after a rough year. Eric Haase has decent power and could be an immediate catching option after hitting .254/.305/.443 in 110 games, but he’s never rated highly defensively and may be a better fit for increased work in left field and/or at designated hitter.
Harris declined comment on Contreras specifically when speaking with reporters at the GM Meetings this evening (via Evan Petzold of the Detroit Free-Press). However, he broadly sounded open to the idea of adding catching help from outside the organization. Harris noted the presence of some internal prospect talent — presumably primarily in reference to former second-round pick Dillon Dingler and to 2021 11th-rounder Josh Crouch — but downplayed the likelihood of anyone from the system seizing that job for 2023. Neither Dingler nor Crouch needs to be added to the 40-man roster this winter, and neither has yet reached Triple-A. Whether Detroit should be willing to surrender a draft choice for a qualified free agent on the heels of a 66-win season is fair to ask, but it seems likely the Tigers will address catcher in some form over the coming months.
The Astros’ interest in Contreras dates back at least to this past summer. The front office arranged a deal that would’ve sent José Urquidy to the Cubs for Contreras at the deadline, but Houston owner Jim Crane vetoed it. Houston pivoted to land Christian Vázquez from the Red Sox instead, but he’s now the #2 backstop behind Contreras in free agency. A Vázquez reunion seems unlikely after he saw sporadic playing time behind Martín Maldonado down the stretch. Maldonado’s presence could be a roadblock to a Contreras pursuit as well, given the World Series champion’s longstanding affinity for the defensive specialist, but Contreras could be such a marked offensive upgrade the team is willing to consider scaling back Maldonado’s playing time to add an impact bat.
Certainly, interest in Contreras will extend far beyond two teams. High-ranking executives with the Diamondbacks, Cardinals and Red Sox have already gone on record about an openness to adding behind the plate. Katie Woo of the Athletic tweets the Cardinals consider catcher to be their #1 priority, with president of baseball operations John Mozeliak open to both free agent and trade possibilities. The Cardinals have long prioritized elite defense behind the dish with Yadier Molina, perhaps making them an odd fit for a bat-first player like Contreras, but Woo relays that St. Louis isn’t solely looking for defensive stalwarts but is prioritizing all-around impact from the position.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, may have more trepidation about Contreras’ mixed reputation as a game-caller. Alex Speier of the Boston Globe writes that Boston is unlikely to make a serious run at the 30-year-old backstop as they place an emphasis on managing a pitching staff. Concerns about Contreras’ game-calling acumen were mentioned at the deadline as well, perhaps playing a role in the Cubs not finding an offer that inspired them to part ways with him despite being well out of playoff contention. Speier notes the Red Sox have had longstanding interest in A’s backstop Sean Murphy — who’ll be a frequent trade target again this winter — and reports they’ve previously checked in on the Padres’ Austin Nola.
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