PEORIA, Ariz. — More pressing than a possible extension, the Cubs and catcher Willson Contreras have to decide what he will be paid this season.
The two parties were reportedly unable to settle on a contract for 2022, with Contreras filing for $10.25 million and the Cubs countering at $9 million on Tuesday, which was the deadline to exchange salary figures with any unsigned arbitration-eligible players.
The Cubs had only two: Contreras and outfielder Ian Happ. Happ and the Cubs avoided arbitration, settling at $6.85 million, FanSided reported. Opening Day is scheduled for April 7, making it likely that hearings will extend into the regular season.
Usually the deadline to exchange figures would come in January, with hearings in February. But the MLB lockout, which lasted 99 days and ended less than two weeks ago, pushed back the arbitration calendar.
The deadline doesn’t cut off negotiations between teams and players, although many teams take a “file and trial” approach, making agreements made between the exchange date and hearing uncommon.
“I think if we had the regular time that we’ve had in years before, we would probably work it out,” Contreras told the Sun-Times on Tuesday morning. “But this year, there’s basically no time to negotiate anything.”
Coming into camp, Happ acknowledged that the process this year, overlapping with spring training and the season, would be “strange.”
He continued: “But my team, and everybody, has spent a lot of time preparing for this.”
Arbitration hearings have been rare for the Cubs. When Happ won his hearing last year in his first year of arbitration, it was just the Cubs’ third arbitration hearing since 1993. Happ was also the first player to beat the Cubs in arbitration in 31 years, earning a $4.1 million salary last year.
In an arbitration hearing, each side makes their cases to an impartial panel. The panel decides between the two figures, taking into account comparable players’ recent contracts.
Contreras had a heavy workload last season as the team went through eight backup catchers. By June, Contreras was leading the majors in innings caught by a wide margin.
He didn’t finish that way, though, because of a combination of injuries (a knee sprain in August and hip inflammation in October) and the team falling out of playoff contention.
At the plate, Contreras had an up-and-down year, posting a .237 average and .438 slugging percentage — the former a drop from last season and the latter an improvement. But with a designated hitter in the National League and an experienced backup catcher in Yan Gomes, the Cubs have tools to keep Contreras’ legs fresher this season.
Contreras recorded a .919 OPS last September and October, when he came back from the injured list and was getting more consistent rest.
The larger question surrounding Contreras’ final year of arbitration and club control is whether the Cubs will extend his contract, trade him or let him hit free agency. Contreras confirmed Tuesday morning that extension talks had not yet picked up this spring.
“They’re adding players, they’re adding pitchers, and that’s totally fine,” Contreras said. “They know what they’re doing. I’m really good where I am right now, and I feel happy to be here once again.”