MLB free agents: Tigers rumored to be interested in catcher Willson Contreras

Bless You Boys

Well the offseason is finally here and with it, the first of those sweet, sweet rumors we love to hate here in Detroit. So often over the past few years these things have gone nowhere, Carlos Correa anyone? More than likely this one won’t pan out either, but it does at least make perfect sense for the Tigers.

Jon Morosi of Fox Sports reports that the Tigers have shown interest in free agent catcher, Willlson Contreras. The idea that President of Baseball Operations, Scott Harris, is looking to reunite with some of his former Cubs, may be a theme of the early offseason. Pairing the 30-year-old star catcher with his old teammate, Javier Báez, could be good for both of them in assimilating with the Tigers and building the winning culture Harris wants to develop.

Is this wise?

We’re going to say yes unless the cost is just astronomical. Something like five years and $110 million would be reasonable and still well worth doing despite the loss of a pick to the qualifying offer system. It’s just not easy to land a top five player at any position, let alone your primary backstop. The scale of reasonable contracts is a lot different for catchers than with other positions. This is all the more true now that framing is due to be slightly less important, and offense perhaps more so, while throwing will become an even more highly valued skill as the larger bases are implemented and stolen bases attempts appear bound to increase.

Contreras is a little bit weak on the framing side, checking in exactly average with zero runs saved via catcher framing per Statcast. However, he’s slightly above average at throwing out baserunners. He was 13th best in pop-time to second base in 2022, 5th best among those with at least 20 opportunities. These numbers are basically in line with his 2021 marks as well. In 2022, Contreras cut down 11 baserunners trying to steal, while 24 were successful.

Of course, catcher metrics are helpful but still pretty far from definitive. The pitcher’s ability to hold runners is a big factor, as is the catch and tag ability of a team’s middle infielders. It seems fair to suggest that Contreras is a bit weak in terms of passed balls, good in terms of pop-time and throwing, and average in terms of framing.

The attraction here is the offensive ability. Contreras hit 22 home runs in 487 plate appearances last season, posting an excellent .349 on base percentage and a 132 wRC+. That season featured the lowest strikeout rate of his six seasons in the majors at just over 21 percent, along with his typically above average walk rate. By seasons’ end, he was the third most valuable catcher with 300 plate appearances or more in terms of wRC+ behind rookie sensation Adley Rutschman and Atlanta’s William Contreras, Willson’s younger brother.

How likely is this?

If not for the fact that Harris was a member of the Cubs’ top brass prior to his two-year tenure as GM of the San Francisco Giants, this would probably be pretty far-fetched. It probably helps that Báez would be a familiar face as well. However, unless those relationships are a lot stronger than we’re aware, this remains a pretty unlikely scenario for the Tigers.

They certainly should aggressively pursuit it, because this is the one position where there are very few full-time players. Getting the likely top hitting catcher in the game is something a team should always do if they’re able. With solid depth at the position but no starter, and Miguel Cabrera unlikely to get many opportunities, the Tigers would be in good position to mix Contreras in as designated hitter part of the time, keep him fresh, and hopefully beat the rush to more offensive-minded catchers as the game appears to be trending back that way to a degree.

There are other ways to go about this. The Blue Jays have MLB caliber catching depth that they’re willing to trade. The Tigers could give Dillon Dingler most of the 2023 season in the minors and see if they can develop his bat further, while seeing how Jake Rogers looks in his return from Tommy John surgery. However, this isn’t an easy position at which to develop a complete player, and Dingler nor rising catching prospect Josh Crouch are ever likely to sniff the type of offensive production Contreras contributes year in and year out. Signing Contreras would immediately give the Tigers the best player on the field at the catcher position against nearly any opponent. That’s going to be an extremely difficult, or at least an extremely expensive task to pull off at any other position this offseason.

Jim Bowden, writing for The Athletic, projected a four-year, $78 million deal for Contreras this week. Bleacher Report guesses six years, $132 million. Somewhere in that range of years and average annual value (AAV) there could be a sweet spot that makes sense for Detroit.

This feels unlikely, but after covering the Al Avila led front office for the last seven years, we’re also liable to be out of our reckoning predicting what Scott Harris might do. If there’s a big move to be made in free agency, this probably makes more sense than any other. Immediately establishing the club with a big move at a premium position would be a statement that the Tigers aren’t planning to take 3-4 years to get back to the postseason.

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