Why catcher Willson Contreras makes sense, and doesn’t make sense, for Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

Willson Contreras is one of the hottest names on the open market.

Contreras has spent his entire professional career with the Chicago Cubs, but the 30-year-old catcher is a free agent for the first time this offseason. The Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins are potential landing spots for the best-hitting catcher in baseball.

The Detroit Tigers would also benefit from adding a catcher this offseason.

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The Tigers met with Contreras’ agent on Nov. 9 at the general manager meetings, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation. That shouldn’t be a surprise, since president of baseball operations Scott Harris said he planned to meet with every agent in Las Vegas.

For now, the Tigers can’t commit to being overly aggressive in their pursuit. They have more pressing needs to address — such as acquiring an infielder, outfielder and starting pitchers — and Contreras’ market remains mysterious. He isn’t expected to sign a new contract before the winter meetings, scheduled for Dec. 4-7 in San Diego.

The Cubs extended the one-year, $19.65 million qualifying offer to Contreras in early November, but he rejected it and chose to test free agency. Because of the qualifying offer, the Tigers would forfeit their third-round pick in the 2023 draft if they were to sign him.

But Harris knows Contreras from their time together with the Cubs. He worked as an executive in the front office from 2012-19, after Contreras signed as an international free agent from Venezuela in 2009. The Cubs snapped a 108-year drought and won the World Series in 2016, the same year Contreras made his MLB debut.

At the GM meetings, Harris declined to publicly comment when explicitly asked about his interest in Contreras. He also declined to comment when asked about his interest in signing a catcher to a short-term or long-term contract.

“The catching position across the game is really difficult to evaluate,” Harris said Nov. 8. “It seems like catching additions are scarce, certainly in free agency year over year. Catching is an area that we can improve on. We also have some young prospects coming through the system that I think are really talented and present an opportunity to fill that need internally. It won’t be this year, but I feel really good about our catching in the future.”

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In 2022, Contreras hit .243 with 22 home runs, 45 walks and 103 strikeouts in 113 games. He has been consistently productive throughout his seven-year MLB career, posting an .808 OPS, 9.8% walk rate and 24.0% strikeout rate. Quality plate appearances, walks and power are areas the Tigers have lacked in the past five years.

Contreras would immediately help those issues.

His 121 wRC+ from 2019-22 ranked first among the five catchers with more than 1,500 plate appearances. The Tigers, meanwhile, have ranked 26th among 30 MLB teams, with a combined 74 wRC+ from their catchers over that span.

The downside, though, is Contreras carries a mixed reputation as a defender. He was worth minus-1 defensive runs saved and minus-3.5 framing runs last season. A full offseason and spring training will allow him to learn a new team’s pitching staff, so any game-calling concerns can be quelled.

At the 2022 trade deadline, the Astros agreed to acquire Contreras from the Cubs in exchange for right-hander José Urquidy but needed approval from owner Jim Crane, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan. Crane nixed the trade, and both players remained with their respective teams.

Then, the Astros traded for catcher Christian Vázquez from the Boston Red Sox.

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Contreras is the top free-agent catcher, with Vázquez as the clear second-best catcher in free agency. Omar Narváez is another quality option. Sean Murphy (Oakland Athletics) and Danny Jansen (Toronto Blue Jays) seem likely to be traded this offseason, with Murphy carrying a steeper asking price. Atlanta Braves catcher Manny Piña could be on the move, too.

Vázquez, Narváez, Jansen and Piña — rather than Contreras or Murphy — could be more realistic options for the Tigers.

Vázquez, a two-time World Series champion, has a 6.2% walk rate and 18.0% strikeout rate in his eight-year MLB career. The 32-year-old, a better defender than Contreras, could settle for a two-year contract at roughly $8 million per year. Jansen, who thrives against right-handed pitchers, posted a 10.1% walk rate and 17.7% strikeout rate last season as the Blue Jays went 42-19 in his 61 starts. The 27-year-old is under team control through the 2024 season.

The Tigers have four notable catchers in the organization: Eric Haase, Jake Rogers, Dillon Dingler and Josh Crouch.

Haase, who also plays left field, is the best catcher on the 40-man roster. Despite poor defense, the soon-to-be 30-year-old has hit .242 with 36 home runs in 208 games over the past two seasons. His combined 106 wRC+ ranked eighth among 18 catchers with more than 700 plate appearances during that span.

Rogers, part of the 2017 Justin Verlander trade, hasn’t played since undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2021. The Tigers would be wise to keep the 27-year-old around for his above-average defense, but he has experienced setbacks in the throwing portion of his rehabilitation.

Dingler and Crouch, a pair of prospects who reached Double-A Erie last season, won’t compete for jobs on the 2023 Opening Day roster.

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Clearly, the Tigers need another catcher for the 2023 season.

Contreras could seek a five-year contract, but he seems more likely to receive four-year offers. He is believed to want an $80 million deal, and if there isn’t a bidding war between postseason contenders, the Tigers might emerge as a realistic landing spot.

He expects to be the fifth catcher in recent history to sign a new contract for at least four years, following Yasmani Grandal (four years, $73 million in 2019), James McCann (four years, $40.6 million in 2020), J.T. Realmuto (five years, $115.5 million in 2021) and Salvador Perez (four years, $82 million in 2021).

The Tigers need to build at least a league-average offense heading into next season. Signing Contreras would certainly move the needle.

That’s because Contreras isn’t just a catcher.

He’s a proven weapon on offense.

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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