The Chicago Cubs were motivated to move their most valuable expiring contract if they received an enticing return.
This approach followed president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer’s philosophy in the lead-up to last year’s trade deadline that saw one-third of the Cubs’ opening-day roster moved. But despite receiving interest from teams, impending free-agent catcher Willson Contreras remains a Cub.
“Like last year, we were willing to listen if someone gave us a piece that could really help our future, and we never crossed that threshold,” Hoyer said Tuesday. “Willson is a really valuable player. He’s been a great Cub for six years now. And we never got to that place where we felt comfortable making a deal to end his tenure here.”
A weeklong buildup to Tuesday’s trade deadline had left Contreras ready for clarity.
He shed tears, soaked in cheers from the Wrigley Field faithful last week and took a moment Sunday in San Francisco to appreciate what he anticipated to be his final game in a Cubs uniform. But when the 5 p.m. deadline passed Tuesday, Contreras and outfielder Ian Happ, the Cubs’ two most valuable players, were still in the lineup for the series opener against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.
The emotional toll on Contreras and Happ and how it played out publicly did not escape Hoyer.
“Maybe there was just an assumption that we would definitely move (Contreras) and there was never anything said by us,” Hoyer said. “We‘ve been in communication with (Contreras’) agents throughout the month, and we never gave any message to anyone that was like, we’re going to trade him at all costs.
“We never found a deal that came close to the right value.”
The Cubs made only two trades Tuesday, moving relievers David Robertson to the Philadelphia Phillies and Mychal Givens to the New York Mets. They were among five total moves the Cubs made, not nearly the same roster overhaul as last year.
It makes more sense for the Cubs to hold on to Happ, who isn’t a free agent until after the 2023 season. If the Cubs still are motivated to move him, they could find more interested teams in the offseason beyond those positioned as contenders at the deadline.
Because he wasn’t traded, Contreras can receive a qualifying offer from the Cubs, barring a contract extension. That might hurt his free-agent market, however, because it would cost the signing team its first draft pick.
The Cubs would receive draft compensation if Contreras were to turn down the qualifying offer.
“It was the same calculation that we’ve always made, which is, what is the value of a comp B pick? And how does that factor into our decision making?” Hoyer said. “How does this impact the free-agent market? So it’s basically back to the same calculus we’ve always had.”
The Cubs didn’t want to do anything halfway in the lead-up to the 2021 deadline, yet the roster over the final two months this year could look very similar to what produced a 41-60 record entering Tuesday.
Last season’s sell-off created developmental opportunities the final eight weeks for players such as reliever Scott Effross, who became such a valuable bullpen arm that he netted the Cubs the No. 4 prospect in the New York Yankees system. There are less clear paths for Triple-A players to get a look the next two months unless the Cubs jettison other veterans in the coming weeks.
Failing to match up with a trade partner for Contreras after the all-in teardown the Cubs embraced last year appears to be a missed opportunity.
Hoyer disputed that characterization.
“Last year at the deadline things lined up for us where we had really motivated buyers at the right times,” he said, “and I think this year in some ways makes me realize how fortunate we were last year from a prospect standpoint to be able to accomplish what we did. This year we never exceeded that value, specifically when it comes to Willson, so I don’t see it as anything going to waste.
“It really is dependent on who you’re talking to and how motivated they are to win a title to bring an All-Star-caliber player into their clubhouse, and this year we just didn’t find that.”