A veteran righty slugger who’s played his entire career to date in Chicago came off the free agent market early this week, and in doing so, might have changed the nature of the offseason for the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Redbirds were never a factor in the free agency of first baseman José Abreu, formerly of the White Sox, who signed a three-year, $58.5 million deal with the Houston Astros. That deal, though, does act to shape the early marketplace, and could influence the speed and the form with which the Cardinals act.
Abreu, whose contract runs through his age-38 season, has been in his career a superior hitter to former Cubs catcher Willson Contreras. For his career, Contreras has posted a 115 OPS+ and averaged 26 home runs per 162 games. Contrast that with Abreu, a 134 OPS+ slugger who averages 31 homers over the same span.
Still, Contreras turns only 31 in the middle of next season, and he plays a more premium defensive position. Even for a first baseman, Abreu is considered a subpar defender. Contreras, while not a top tier defensive catcher and with some clear flaws in his game behind the plate, still is stronger in the field compared to others at his position than the older Abreu.
What, then, does Abreu’s contract say about the market and where Contreras may fit? If a a player limited to only first base and designated hitter can receive a three-year commitment, it seems certain Contreras could expect at least five at a similar, if not significantly higher, annual value. And he could be that first base backup or DH at the back end of his career.
Even as the market begins to form a steep slope, it’s worth acknowledging interest on behalf of the Cardinals in Contreras has never been as clear as the pursuit in the opposite direction. Contreras has spoken openly about his desire to take up Yadier Molina’s helm and has pursued conversations with friends and former teammates about the atmosphere in St. Louis.
While a zoomed out approach to examining the Cardinals winter needs seems to suggest Contreras as a clear fit, the defense-first approach the club has taken behind the plate for more than two decades seems to suggest a preference to look in another direction.
The potential size of a deal, too, is an impediment. Only once have the Cardinals signed a player in free agency to a deal worth more than $100 million, and current bench coach Matt Holliday agreed to that contract having already spent half a season in St. Louis.
Dexter Fowler’s $82.5 million deal remains the largest free agent contract signed by a player who hadn’t previously been a Cardinal; Paul Goldschmidt’s $130 million extension is the largest deal given to a player who hadn’t yet played a game with the club.
Contreras is likely to fall between the two, at a price that may be beyond what the club has previously termed its “puke point.” In many ways, the situation could be viewed as a reverse of that which saw Fowler become a Cardinal in the first place. After first pursuing outfielder Adam Eaton from the White Sox and blanching at the asking price in talent, the decision was made to spend cash to secure Fowler.
Additional trade possibilities
Indeed, the trade market does offer more in terms of long-term solutions which fit the club’s standard operating procedures. Oakland’s Sean Murphy remains a standout and is likely to be traded this winter, though St. Louis will likely have stiff competition for him in the market.
Other trade possibilities have been well documented. Toronto, still, is likely to move either Danny Jansen or Alejandro Kirk, and Kansas City’s Salvador Perez is drawing quiet attention as teams determine their level of commitment to MJ Melendez.
Any and all of those possibilities will require the Cardinals to part with significant talent which may contribute both now and in the future, but that price may be one they’re willing to swallow when they consider the alternatives.
Ultimately they may well return to another, lower-cost free agent option (Christian Vázquez) should they not find a trade market in which there’s an obvious talent match. And yet in the midst of a winter in which the club has pledged to increase payroll, their most pressing need may not be one they choose to fill with cash.
Contreras best of the bunch
Whatever his deficiencies behind the plate, Contreras is surely the best free agent catcher to hit the market since the Phillies signed JT Realmuto to a five-year, $115.5 million deal ahead of the 2021 season. Realmuto was a year younger then than Contreras is now, and while he’s a far superior defender, Contreras is unquestionably a bigger power threat at the plate.
The market for the top free agent at the Cardinals’ top position of need seems to be firmly defined. Whether they’ll choose to be players in that market is a question they may be forced to answer within the next week.
If not, and the position remains unsettled, the direction they’re leaning will be clarified nonetheless.