clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Orioles free agent target: Willson Contreras

The Orioles need a backup catcher, and they need another big bat in the lineup. Who says they can’t be the same guy?

Cincinnati Reds v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Mike Elias’s promise of “liftoff” for the Orioles this offseason has fans giddy about which players the club might pursue. Could it be an elite starting pitcher? Could it be a slugging first baseman? An outfielder, a relief pitcher, or one of the many star shortstops on the market? The Orioles could find a spot for nearly any player on their roster.

But what if I told you that their most impactful signing could be...a backup catcher?

This ain’t your father’s backup catcher. This is one who could fill a hybrid role rarely seen in baseball these days, getting everyday at-bats while making spot starts behind the dish. So let’s talk about why Willson Contreras makes a surprising amount of sense for the Orioles.

Contreras, signed by the Cubs as an international amateur in 2009, has spent his entire career in that organization, becoming an instant success after his first MLB call-up in 2016. Contreras homered in his first major league at-bat, went on to slug .488 and bash 12 dingers in less than a half-season of play, and helped the Cubs snap their 108-year championship drought. Contreras has been the undisputed starter behind the plate for Chicago ever since, and you can practically set your watch to his consistent offensive production. He’ll hit you about 20 homers a year and get on base at a .340-.350 clip, making him one of the best hitting catchers in the game.

His defense, on the other hand, leaves something to be desired. While he can throw out base stealers with the best of them — cutting down 31 percent of runners in 2022, and finishing league-average or better in CS% in six of his seven years — he grades out less impressively as a pitch framer, ranking in just the 27th percentile in that category. For a team with a young, relatively untested pitching staff, a catcher’s ability to turn borderline pitches into strikes is a useful skill, one that Contreras lacks.

Contreras’s days as a regular catcher may already be winding down. Contreras, who turned 30 in May, played fewer games at catcher this year (72) than in any of his previous full seasons, and more than ever at designated hitter (39). The rebuilding Cubs — who have parted ways with franchise stars Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and others in recent years — seem likely to move on from their longtime backstop. This may be Contreras’s best chance at a big payday, with MLBTradeRumors and FanGraphs each predicting he’ll get a four-year contract in the $80-84 million range.

It’s no guarantee that Contreras, a bat-first guy who is on the wrong side of 30, will find a club that’s willing to put him behind the plate full time. Instead, the ideal situation for him may be a team that needs him to catch only one or two games a week while primarily DHing or playing other positions.

Say...I can think of a team that fits that description.

The Orioles, as you may have heard, have their starting catcher position locked down for the foreseeable future. But even the great Adley Rutschman needs a break from behind the plate every now and then. A backup catcher is on the Orioles’ shopping list this winter, but rather than settle for yet another nondescript, barely playable retread — your Austin Wynnses, your Anthony Bembooms, your Robinson Chirini — why not get creative? Why not add a stellar bat to your lineup who can capably fill in behind the plate when needed?

Both Contreras and the team could benefit from such a strategy. He’d still be in the lineup every day, often at DH, but wouldn’t have to hang up the catcher’s gear just yet. The Orioles would be adding some much-needed right-handed power to a lineup whose most prominent righties (Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays) struggled this year. And even if The Dreaded Wall at Camden Yards were to take away a few homers from Contreras, his OBP skills and ability to make hard contact will still play.

And Contreras may have the flexibility to move around the diamond if the O’s don’t want him to clog up the designated hitter spot. He began his pro career as a third baseman before converting to catcher in 2012, his fourth year in the minors. He’s started 25 career games in the outfield, though just one in the last five seasons, and four games at first base (but, again, none since 2017). Decreasing his workload as a catcher could free him up to try some other positions more often. It would also increase the Orioles’ overall depth. By not having to carry a Chirinos type of backup catcher who plays only once a week, the O’s would have more room on their bench for super-utility guys like Ramón Urías and Terrin Vavra, giving manager Brandon Hyde a wealth of lineup possibilities to keep players fresh.

Hyde, a longtime member of the Cubs organization, is plenty familiar with Contreras. He was the club’s minor league field coordinator and then director of player development from 2011-13, when Contreras was working his way through the Cubs’ farm system, and then was a big league coach from 2014-2018 when Willson arrived on the major league scene.

An even more important relationship is that between Contreras and Tim Cossins, currently the Orioles’ catching instructor, who held that same job in the minors for the Cubs as Contreras was learning the position. In a 2017 interview, Contreras gushed that Cossins “is like everything for me. ... He was always calling. Still in the big leagues we keep talking by phone, texting. He’s always helping me.”

Those prior connections could certainly help the Orioles’ case to sign Contreras. They’ve also got the money to do so, if they’re serious about spending it. Shelling out a $20 million or so annual salary on Contreras wouldn’t break the bank, and should leave the O’s with additional funds in their budget for other significant acquisitions this offseason. And while the O’s would surrender their third-highest draft pick to sign Contreras, who rejected a qualifying offer from the Cubs, that pick would likely be somewhere around #70. The tradeoff is worth it for a player who can help turn them into contenders.

On paper, a team with a generational talent like Adley Rutschman behind the plate might not seem like the best fit for the top catcher on the market, especially with other areas of more pressing need. But Contreras and the Orioles could be a match after all.