SAN DIEGO — On Oct. 15 in Scottsdale, Arizona, Giants prospect Jacob Heyward was ejected from an Arizona Fall League game after reacting in shock when he was called out on a “strike” the catcher caught near Heyward’s foot.
The call had nothing to do with pitch-framing. But it does relate to the Cubs’ relationship with All-Star catcher Willson Contreras.
With the team in listening mode regarding trades of their big-league commodities, Contreras’ name immediately arose, alongside Kris Bryant’s, in early-offseason rumors.
In fact, when the White Sox signed top free-agent catcher Yasmani Grandal three weeks ago, followed by the Braves signing No. 2 free-agent catcher Travis d’Arnaud, the trade value of a strong-armed, power-hitting, two-time All-Star catcher appeared to skyrocket.
The fact that he has three years of club control remaining only increases that value.
The obvious question: Can the Cubs afford not to trade him at a time of such value and of such transition within the organization?
But perhaps a bigger, if less obvious question: Can they afford to trade him?
What if he’s on the verge of superstardom? What if his clear Achilles’ heel as a catcher were rendered moot? And what if they can get him to sign a long-term contract instead?
Rewind to that unfortunate moment for Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward’s little brother. The call was a result of Major League Baseball’s latest experiment with electronic strike zones — robot umpires — after a similarly flawed trial in the independent Atlantic League over the summer.
Commissioner Rob Manfred recently suggested the technology is improving, with some affiliated minor leagues scheduled to operate under the system in 2020, and discussions remain fluid among baseball executives and with union representatives over future MLB implementation.
In fact, some execs believe human umps could be receiving their strikes and balls directives via earpieces by 2022.
“We thought the Atlantic League was a really positive experience,” Manfred said during an interview on MLB Network. “Positive in the sense that it worked well a very, very large percentage of the time.”
The earpiece and actual call from the umpire offers what Manfred called a “human backup,” potentially for such cases as the Jacob Heyward call.
The high-energy, big-hitting catcher has been downgraded increasingly for his receiving skills the more “framing” has become a quantifiable metric in recent years.
Through increasing focus on it the last two years in particular, he has improved but still doesn’t rank highly at the coveted skill.
Imagine if that no longer mattered.
Even before trade rumors began circulating just ahead of last month’s general managers meetings, team president Theo Epstein raved about what Contreras already means to the Cubs.
“He’s an extremely talented catcher. He’s probably as good a thrower as anyone in baseball, as good a blocker as anyone in baseball,” Epstein said, adding that he expects to see even more improvement in framing into next season.
“This is like the most tooled-out, athletic catcher, who has a huge heart and cares and wants his pitcher to succeed, as well. I know we lost a lot back there when he went down with [a hamstring] injury. The best version of Willson Contreras is an MVP candidate, a difference-making catcher who also makes your pitching staff better. So that’s what we’re continuing to work towards.”
It’s no secret the Cubs are stuck in free-agent purgatory this winter until they can move enough projected salary to operate around bad contracts that have filled the payroll budget for more than a year.
Bryant could be a key to that because of a projected high salary through arbitration, but a strong free-agent market at his position and a pending decision on a service-time grievance could significantly affect when the Cubs can move him and for how much.
Contreras could be ready for delivery now, possibly for a significant haul.
Or ready to play a leading role for the next Cubs playoff team.