Cubs Had Agreement to Trade Willson Contreras to Astros, Dusty Baker Scuttled Deal

Jed Hoyer said after a very quiet trade deadline that the Cubs hadn’t gotten the kind of offers they needed to move Willson Contreras or Ian Happ, but that may not have been the case. As Jeff Passan reported in the wake of Houston’s second World Series title in the last six years, the Cubs and Astros had an agreement on a straight-up trade of Contreras for righty starter José Urquidy. The deal never received ownership’s blessing, largely because Dusty Baker opposed it.

That opposition came from the manager’s stated desire to preserve the chemistry in the clubhouse and maintain a team-first approach. Thus general manager James Click was overridden as owner Jim Crane exerted more influence in baseball operations with folks like Baker and Jeff Bagwell getting in his ear to the GM’s chagrin. Sure sounds like Click won’t be back next season, but Baker’s explanation is pretty weak sauce.

“Much as I like Willson Contreras, Urquidy was one of our best pitchers then,” Baker told reporters. “I needed a guy that wasn’t going to complain about not playing every day. And this is his [free agent] year. See, that’s tough. When you trade for a player in his [free agent] year. Everybody’s about numbers and stuff, and I can’t blame them, no doubt. But that’s not what we needed.”

Though he didn’t say it, some of Baker’s objection likely came from the fact that Contreras’s value comes mainly from his offensive prowess. A team that traded for defense-first Christian Vázquez and then started light-hitting Martin Maldonado in five World Series games could be seen as a great candidate to add a bigger bat behind the plate, but they clearly valued their catchers’ abilities as game managers.

The Mets failed to meet the Cubs’ asking price for that exact same reason, plus they were still feeling the sting of the last year’s Pete Crow-Armstrong fleecing. Things didn’t work out quite as well for them as they did for the Astros, huh? Now we turn back to the Cubs, who never felt any urgency to extend their three-time All-Star starter and are ready to move in a different direction at catcher.

Had the trade gone through, it certainly would have been a much bigger coup for the Cubs than what they’ll end up getting in qualifying offer compensation. Contreras is now a free agent and could theoretically work out a new deal in the next five days, the window of negotiating exclusivity before players can talk with other teams, but it seems far more likely that he’ll reject the QO and seek a bigger contract elsewhere.

Once he signs with a new team, the Cubs will receive a compensatory pick following Competitive Balance Round B in the 2023 draft. That’s a selection somewhere in the 75-80 range, not exactly huge value. Urquidy has a career 3.74 ERA over 342 MLB innings and is projected to earn $3.2 million in arbitration with two more years of arb-eligibility after that. He will turn 28 in May and would have provided more depth to a rotation that didn’t have much consistency this past season.

Not that any of it matters now with the water under the bridge or over the dam, but I think this confirms a lot of what we’ve believed for a while now about how the Cubs and other teams view Contreras. That isn’t to say he has no value, mind you, only that he’s not going to be valued as highly by teams with particular pitching staffs — either very opinionated veterans or youngsters who need a soft hand. While every team wants to squeeze the most possible production from every aspect of the game, philosophies differ on how to best accomplish that.

For instance, a team like the Mets probably would have been better off sacrificing a little blocking or game-management skill for the offensive boost Contreras would have provided. Max Scherzer might have even found a way to see eye-to-eye with a fiery backstop who wouldn’t back down from his heterochromic gaze. Heck, Scherzer probably would have welcomed a little more swagger in the clubhouse, and you know he’d be in favor of anything that made the team better.

As for the Cubs, well, I have to think their decision was solidified when their patchwork pitching staff performed so well during the weeks Contreras spent on the IL late in the season. It wasn’t purely a matter of having Yan Gomes back there every day, but the improvement was more than coincidental. While something surprising could still happen to keep Contreras in Chicago, his departure feels as close to fait accompli as you can get.

To that end, I hope he’s able to go out and get paid somewhere as long as it’s not in St. Louis. I also hope the Cubs bring in another game-managing backstop who meshes well with a staff that should be much improved from a combination of outside additions, internal development, and better health.

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