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Analysis of the Contreras deal

It’s likely market value or better, depending on how the price of a win changes.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals signed Willson Contreras. It’s funny how the waves of expectations hit you. During the 2022 season, if you had told me that or most Cardinals fans, they’d probably be happy. There was a heavy dose of assumption going on that he was simply too pricey for the Cardinals and no way would they be the winning bidders. And then, it became more realistic to imagine. But Sean Murphy emerged. Suddenly that was the preferred option. Or possibly a Blue Jays’ catcher. Things went in a circle and Contreras was the choice after all.

Here’s my best guess as to what happened. The Athletics demanded Masyn Winn or Jordan Walker. Or they wanted something like Nolan Gorman, Lars Nootbaar, and a pitching prospect. The type of trade Cards fans will say “just get it done,” but that when it’s done, they are shocked at the price. I strongly suspect whatever trade offer the Athletics wanted, we’d probably say it was too much. We may never know of course.

*After I wrote this, Goold reported the asking price was Lars Nootbaar, Brendan Donovan, and Gordon Graceffo. According to Baseball Trade Values, that’s 85.7 in value. Sean Murphy, according to the same site, is worth 51.3. So needless to say, it would have been an insane overpay, so it totally makes sense that the Cards were like “yeah this is not happening.”

And it’s clear the Cardinals did not want to wait. They did not want to be in a position where they HAD to trade for a catcher. They wanted the leverage of a free agent possibility. That’s something that wasn’t going to last too terribly long. Once the free agent options - the legitimate ones - are off the table, the Cards would be stuck. Whether or not this is the right move will never be known. What is known is Willson Contreras is the starting catcher on Opening Day this upcoming season.

You’ll see a few Cardinals fans say that Contreras is a designated hitter. This is exaggerated. He is a catcher. He is perfectly average at the things a catcher can be judged by statistically with the exception of framing. That is a big deal, for now. But he’s fine at blocking. He’s fine at catching runners. And he may very well call a bad game, but that’s not really anything we know. There is no stat for that. We don’t know.

It’s too muddied to figure out either. Even in this particular situation - the Cardinals pitching staff is mostly unchanged from last year - you can’t necessarily compare the numbers and see if there’s a drop-off. There’s a whole host of reasons why a pitcher may pitch worse or pitch better and we don’t know if it’s because of game calling by the catcher or not. The dugout might not. The front office might know. We, currently, do not. So maybe we’ll see, maybe we won’t.

Also there’s a bit of a misconception. Contreras catches more than seems to be understood. The Cubs were in full rebuild last year and were terrible and Contreras was one of the few good offensive options, so they played him as much as possible, and even with that he caught 72 of his 113 games played. The year before, he caught 112 games out of his 128 games played. He caught 92 out of 105 games in 2019 (and was nearly as good offensively that year as in 2022) He is legit a full-time starting catcher who plays a bit more because managers want his bat in the lineup. But he catches like a normal starting catcher. We are just used to Yadier Molina playing at a 150 game pace, but that is NOT normal.

We do know that Contreras is good at offense. He is an excellent offensive hitting catcher. The key word is hitting catcher. He is a good hitter, in general. But his hitting, isolated from catching, is not super valuable on its own. Juan Yepez, Alec Burleson, and Nolan Gorman will come close, if not match or exceed, his expected offensive output, but due to playing DH or playing defense poorly, will not be all that valuable as players. The same applies to Contreras.

I already wrote a free agent spotlight on Contreras, so I’ll just share what I thought his market should look like. I factored in his likely plate appearances (as opposed to the “assume he’s healthy all year” thing Steamer does) and also assumed that robot umps would be coming into play soon. For 2023, I used his projected framing and for 2024 and 2025, I averaged his projection with his bad framing and with no framing at all (robo umps). I assumed by 2026, robot umps were a 100 percent certainty. Not real comfortable with how reliant we kind of are on robot umps to help his value, but nothing we can do about that.

So, my best estimate for Contreras’ value is 2.5 WAR in 460 PAs. So it’s 2.5, 2.2, 1.7, 1.4, 1.1 for the five-year outlook. For a five-year deal, that’s $84.6 million. For a four-year deal, that’s $74.1 million. However, Contreras is going to come with a draft pick penalty. Not as much as in the past, but it should affect his free agent price. If my information is correct, the Cardinals would lose their 2nd round pick by signing Contreras. Assuming they don’t receive a competitive balance pick after the first round (I believe they are eligible for the one happening after the 2nd round, not the first though, could be wrong), the 2nd round pick should be #61 for the Cards. That is $4.6 million in value according to Fangraphs.

This means Contreras should fall well short of $100 million. The options would be 5 years, $80 million or 4 years, $69.5 million. We’ll just say 4 years, $70 million for nice, round numbers. Are you taking either deal, going with a cheaper free agent option, or going to the trade market?

However, I assumed $9.5 million per win, which seems on the low side of how this free agency will turn out. Let’s just up that to $10 million per win, which itself is something of a conservative estimate at this point, but I’d rather be too low than too high on this one. That comes out to 5 years, $89 million, and with the draft pick penalty, it’s 5 years, $84.4 million. The value of a win in this free agency does not have to be much higher for this to be an above market deal and it kind of feels like it will be.

Plus, if robot umps come into play in 2024 like what’s supposed to happen, his value does increase. And in fact, if you assume $10 million per win, and robot umps come into play in 2024, his 5-year outlook is 5 years, $88.4 million. No matter how you slice it, this is at worst a fair deal and given the insane numbers that have happened (hello Taijuan Walker), it’s difficult to complain about. I’ll be rooting for robot umps a little bit harder than I was before though, I won’t lie.