I love Willson Contreras. I love watching him pick fools off and catch fools stealing and hit home runs and flip his bat and pimp walks from time to time and give intimidating looks to base runners—his energy is fantastic and the kind that doesn’t come along every day. He has a big heart, most evident when he talks about the terrible things happening to the people in his native Venezuela. He is magnetic, and I completely understand why the Cubs fan base is in love with him.
In 2019, Willy rated second in wRC+ among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances at 127. That's great! That's a smidge better than Ronald Acuña Jr. and just a tick under Nolan Arenado. No, really! In fact, the only catcher that was more productive on offense was Mitch Garver of the Twins at 155 wRC+, and that maybe seems a taaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad fluky and ripe for some regression in 2020. If you dump Willson's bad 2018, his 2019 stats were consistent with what he did in both 2016 and 2017, when he put up a 126 and 122 wRC+, respectively. So, probably not fluky!
All of that said, Willson Contreras is not the best catcher in MLB. In fact, in terms of fWAR, Willson came in 7th among catchers in MLB in 2019 just ahead of (hold onto your butts!) noted terrible defensive catcher Gary Sanchez.
It's time, Cubs fans, to stop acting like Willy is the best catcher in baseball. The best offensive catcher? Yes. The best all around? Absolutely not even close. It's a very steep drop off from J.T. Realmuto and Yasmani Grandal to Willson, and 2019 isn't the only season that's been the case. Why? Because those two get it done in a very big way on both sides of the ball. Behold:
Thanks as always to our friends at FanGraphs!
Out of 68 catchers with at least 200 PAs, Willson was fifth from the bottom in pitch framing for 2019. That is... less than ideal. (Oh hey, is that Omar Narvaez at #2 the same Omar Narvaez the Brewers just traded for, and the same one the entirety of Cubs Twitter had a unified doom boner about? Huh.) Why is this such a big deal? Discount pitch framing at your own risk--when your sport's officials are not good (love that "human element") and other catchers can steal strikes for their team better than you can, it makes a big difference between your pitcher being up in a count 0-2 vs. down 2-0.
I'd also like you to note that rSB statistic--that's the number that tells you how many runs a catcher prevented in a season via controlling the run game. That seems... low for Willson, doesn't it? Indeed, it is... that number was 4, 6 and 5 in the previous three years, respectively.
Now, look again at the offensive stats up there and find Cubs back up catcher Victor Caratini at #18--he was worth 1.4 fWAR in about 130 fewer PAs than Contreras. Clocking in with a 108 wRC+, Carrot's 2019 season was on par, production-wise, with... OMG J.T. REALMUTO. Now, I'm one who believes that Realmuto's super productive 2018 in Florida was an outlier--the rest of his career has been much more in line with what he did in 2019. In light of that, I'm gonna leave this right here.
OK, so those are only 2019 numbers, and yes, this was really the first season where Victor looked like a legit major league bat. But... it made you raise an eyebrow, didn't it? And if you're wondering where he falls in pitch framing, he rated a positive 1.6--not fantastic (legitimately terrible hitter Austin Hedges led the pack at 20.7), but much better than Contreras.
Now, don't take all of my negativity toward Willson as some sort of hate. Like I said above--I love Willy! And the Cubs recent hire of catching defense/framing guru Craig Driver away from the Phillies (oh hey... that's the guy who worked with Realmuto this past season!) could only benefit both backstops behind the plate. That said, if we can get past our personal attachment to Contreras, perhaps we can see a little more clearly why the Cubs are looking at trading him.
Don't be mad, mi friend! I love you!
Both Cubs catchers are legitimate big league offensive players, but one seems to have matured more quickly on the other side of the ball. Willson also has been injured each of the last two years, and may have a ton of value to an AL team where he can DH part time and bring that big bat without having to squat for nine innings. That's the kind of value, at Willson's current control and salary, that could net you a few top level prospects that help restock a depleted farm for the future--especially when a top prospect you already have is a catcher. Huh. Interesting, that. Also interesting to note that Caratini rates positively as a first baseman--did you realize he logged 129 innings at first in 2019? And he rated a 2.9 UZR/150, which yes SSS, but it's still very good!
I guess what I'm ultimately saying is that if the Cubs do decide to deal Contreras, or even Caratini (!), at least it's the one position where the team has ample depth. Willy's offensive production will need to be replaced, but a decent bat in CF and at 2B for a full year might help solve some of that. Perhaps increasing Caratini's PAs will see him develop into an even better hitter. It also could help Thed eliminate the "window" we all keep talking about and help the team remain competitive beyond 2021 without going through another rebuild. As of this writing, trade rumors seemed much stronger around Kris Bryant, which we also hate, but perhaps the team is looking at this as an either/or situation--one or the other gets traded, not both. If a trade of that magnitude does go down, the Contreras deal makes much more sense from an organizational standpoint in both the short and long term.
I wanted to jump in with a couple of points to back up Staci's analysis.
-Willson does wear down, and has durability concerns. In his career, he's an .855 OPS player in the first half. Starkly contrasting this is a .768 OPS in the second half.
-Willson is 7th in catcher's WAR, despite having the second best RC+ on the list. There's a point where his framing actually holds back the team, in spite of his offensive strengths. We may have seen a little of it this year, with Caratini being one piece that unlocked Yu Darvish's potential. Catchers never garner maximum value based off their offensive. They are defense first.
-Caratini put up 1.4 WAR in 279 PAs, Willson did 2.7 in 409. If Caratini had the same number of PA's, he'd be a 2.05 WAR player. Not too far off Willson.
-I feel like this could be Willson's peak value. He's going to be 28, not super old. But after seeing him hurt in 2 years as missing major time (117 games in '17 and 105 in '19), his durability is a concern. Couple that with in his fullest 2018 season, he put up a .730 OPS (career .821) as he had a major slump in the second half. Unfortunately he could be a likely regression candidate. I'd rather see the Cubs use him as trade bait to fill in 2B or CF with Caratini becoming the new starter.
-Theoretically, if Willson (essentially a 3 WAR player) can get you a 3 WAR 2B or CF, then you do it. That's a 3 WAR boost at another spot, and Caratini should be good for at least 2 again. Not that things are quite that cut and dry.