Where Cubs might trade Willson Contreras

The Cubs haven’t yet managed to sign catcher Willson Contreras to a contract extension, and unless or until that changes, that makes him a particularly intriguing trade candidate at the Deadline. Contreras, 30, is off to by far the best hitting start of his career, posting a .931 OPS and a 57% hard-hit rate that rates as the fourth-best in all of baseball, behind only Yordan Alvarez, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton.

Throw in the fact that offense is more difficult to find from catchers than it’s ever been – no, really, catchers in 2022 are posting a mere .639 OPS, the weakest since 1968 – and that the rebuilding Cubs are well on their way to a season that will end out of contention, and you can see why they’d be fine with getting through the end of the season with PJ Higgins, Yan Gomes, John Hicks, or whatever other combination of backstops they might employ, assuming a big return for Contreras.

You know: just like they did with Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Javier Báez last summer. It’ll be years before we know how they did when they dismantled the 2016 core, but at the moment, three of their top seven prospects were acquired in those trades, and it should be a good reminder that if you think a World Series hero can’t or won’t be traded, well, sure they can. They have been. They will be. That’s especially so for a 30-year-old catcher hitting better than he ever has before, slated to enter free agency this winter.

There are a handful of obvious potential destinations for Contreras, should the Cubs decide to make the move. But first, there’s a bit of an elephant in the room, something that might make a move harder than whatever trade demands Chicago might have. If you’re having trouble thinking of the last time a big-name catcher was traded at or near his peak in the middle of the season, you’re not alone. It’s incredibly rare.

Catcher trades rarely happen in-season

How rare? Let’s go back to 1969, the beginning of the Divisional Era. Let’s find catchers who had at least 300 plate appearances in a season in which they were traded, and only those who had at least 2.0 WAR in that season. There are only 11 such players in that time – or about one every five years – which shows you just how rare this is.

From here, we’re getting subjective. Butch Wynegar going from the Twins to the Yankees in 1982 qualifies, but does it count? We argue it does not. Are we buying Joe Ferguson going from the Astros back to the Dodgers in 1978? You’re free to; we’re not. After some eyeballing, this is the list of strong catchers traded in-season in the last half-century.

That’s … it. Seven times in more than 50 years – and we’re not even totally convinced that all of these belong to be included, anyway.

Why is it so rare? It’s not hard to understand. Primarily, it’s about the fact that if you have a good catcher, you’re very likely not looking to give him up. But there’s also the simple fact of the demands of the position, about it’s not just “standing in left field wearing a different color hat now,” but about having to learn an entirely new pitching staff.

Imagine, for example, Contreras going from the soft-tossing Cubs (who have the lowest fastball velocity in the Majors over the last three years) to the high-velocity, advanced pitching styles of the Dodgers or Yankees. It wouldn’t be easy, even for a highly-regarded defensive catcher. Contreras might have the best throwing arm of any backstop, but he’s one of 2022’s weakest framers, too. It’s not as simple as just slotting him behind the plate.

None of those trades, by the way, ended with the acquiring team making the World Series. In fact, since baseball integrated in 1947, only two catchers acquired in-season have started at least two World Series games that year, and neither are good comparison here. In 1967, Elston Howard started six World Series games for Boston after being acquired from the Yankees in August, but he was already 38 years old at the time and was hitting .196 when he was traded.

Six years earlier, Darrell Johnson started a pair of World Series games for the Reds, but his path to Cincinnati was a wild one. At 32 years old in 1961, he took a job as a coach with the Cardinals, but was let go in July when manager Solly Hemus was fired. He signed with the Phillies as a player and caught 21 games, then was sold to the Reds in late August – and somehow managed to find himself starting World Series games weeks later.

No team in history – not those ‘67 Red Sox or the ‘61 Reds, or the 1929 Cubs of Zack Taylor, or the 1925 Senators or 1926 Yankees that both had Hank Severeid, or the 1913 Giants of Larry McLean, or the 1905 A’s of Doc Powers – has won a World Series with a catcher acquired midseason starting their games. It doesn’t mean it can’t happen — just that it has not.

The teams that could use Contreras

That, of course, won’t stop teams who want to add a bat, especially because the addition of the designated hitter to the National League means that there could be added interest from clubs who don’t necessarily want or need Contreras to start behind the plate five days a week. In some cases, if he can start there two or three days a week and be a DH bat the rest of the time, that might be a situation that works out.

There seem, to us, to be six possibilities.

Astros – No team in baseball is getting less, offensively, out of their catchers, where Martin Maldonado and Jason Castro are combining to hit a seemingly impossible .126/.210/.224. Let’s clarify that; no team in more than 100 years has gotten this little offense from behind the plate. Maldonado, in particular, is highly valued for his defense, which is not a skill to be overlooked, but it’s also hard to see a playoff team limping along with this kind of hitting. The only problem here is one of roster construction, in that if Contreras is the DH, then either Michael Brantley or Yordan Álvarez is on the bench. That might not be worth the effort, unless they’re willing to have Contreras take the bulk of the catching work.

Yankees – There’s a ton of similarities to Houston here in that Jose Trevino and Kyle Higashioka are adding good value behind the plate and absolutely nothing next to it (.222/.275/.341), but a path to DH playing time for Contreras might not be so clear when Giancarlo Stanton and Josh Donaldson are each available. For Yankees fans worried that three spots in the lineup aren’t producing – depending on how you feel about Aaron Hicks and Joey Gallo – that might be a concern worth dealing with. But given the well-stated dedication to improving defense in the infield and behind the plate – which has worked – Contreras might not be a step in the direction that the Yankees are headed.

Padres – San Diego, aside from Manny Machado and an early-season Eric Hosmer run that has now faded, simply isn’t hitting. They have the third-weakest hard-hit rate. They have the fourth-fewest extra base hits. It’s not bad luck, it’s bad production, but because the defense and pitching have been so strong, they’re on a 91-win pace and strongly in the NL West race. They’ll get Fernando Tatis Jr. back soon, which will help, but does anyone at all expect AJ Preller to stand pat? Austin Nola and Jorge Alfaro (.233/.295/.326) aren’t exactly standing in the way.

Giants – It’s been a weird season for San Francisco, who are 29-24 (and would have a playoff spot if the season ended today) but have played poor defense and have had even more trouble replacing Buster Posey than anyone anticipated. Not that anyone was going to step into a Hall of Famer’s shoes, but Joey Bart is striking out at an incredible 45% rate; he’s got just 14 hits this season.

Mets – New York does have a highly-paid backstop on the mend in James McCann, who is in the midst of a four-year, $40 million contract. That deal, however, never really made a ton of sense at the time, and so far, McCann has hit only .227/.290/.341 as a Met. In his absence recovering from a broken hamate bone, Tomás Nido and Pat Mazeika have hit just .220/.264/.297 themselves. As a group, it’s the seventh-weakest offensive production from catcher, and while it’s probably not as big a need as pitching depth is, it’s not hard to see how this could work, either. Without Robinson Canó or Dominic Smith, there’s more DH time available, and if any team can live with having a highly-paid backup like McCann, it’s this Mets team.

Rays – Yes, the Rays. Hear us out on this one. They’re not opposed to Deadline deals; they traded for Nelson Cruz last summer. They reportedly did try for Freddie Freeman, too. At 31-23 with their usual strong pitching, they’re very much in the playoff race, yet they are just 14th in runs scored. That, in part, is because the up-and-down career of Mike Zunino is very much in a down phase; he’s hit only .152/.200/.313 while striking out nearly 40% of the time. Francisco Mejia has been a little better, though not much (.241 OBP and two homers), and he still has a Minor League option remaining anyway. Since the Rays tend to mix-and-match their DH spot, it’s pretty easy to slot Contreras into the lineup – even if they’re not usually the team you think of here.