Cubs’ Willson Contreras determined not to let arbitration hearing disrupt season

BALTIMORE – Cubs catcher Willson Contreras is prepared for the hours of sitting and listening. That’s what he’s in for when he and his representation meet opposite the Cubs’ counsel to present their sides in his arbitration hearing.

“I’m not going to take anything personal,” Contreras said in a conversation with the Sun-Times. “I know it’s all business. But I just won’t let that bother my season.”

The hearing, which is scheduled for Thursday via video call, will put the decision over Contreras’ 2022 salary in the hands of an independent panel. And it’s just one step toward resolving the contract questions that hang over Contreras’ last year of club control.

Contreras and the Cubs had twice before avoided arbitration. But this year, whether extra time would have made a difference or not, the lockout condensed their window to reach an agreement. Spring is also usually an ideal time to pick up extension talks. This year, spring training instead overlapped with a free agent frenzy.

The Cubs have a file-and-trial policy – a common approach, in which teams cut off arbitration negotiations after salary figures have been exchanged. But they still could have gone the way of the Rockies, who were set to go to arbitration with pitcher Kyle Freeland but instead signed him to a five-year contract extension.

“Willson and I get along great,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said a couple weeks ago. “I talk to him almost every day. There’s no tension there.”

Contreras had initially said he’d rather not carry extension talks into the season, but he’s softened his stance since this spring.

“It won’t bother me if they come with something,” Contreras said. “It won’t bother me if they don’t come with anything. I know how this thing works. I’m just not putting my focus on that. I’m just trying to stay healthy, do the best I can to maintain myself on the field, and then do the best I can to help a lot of guys here in this clubhouse.”

Contreras, who entered Wednesday leading the team in on-base percentage (.404), has proven he can perform amid contract distractions.

Last month, he hit his 100th career home run, becoming just the third Cubs catcher to reach the milestone in franchise history.On Tuesday, a few hours after an interview that delved into all the contract issues Contreras has said he’s trying not to dwell on, he launched his 10th home run of the season into the left-field stands of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

That home run not only widened his lead among MLB catchers this season but also made this season Contreras’ sixth with double-digit homers. He’s tied with Jody David for second-most double-digit home-run seasons among Cubs catchers all-time, behind only Gabby Hartnett (12).

It’s still weird for Contreras when people refer to him as a veteran – “I’m only 30 years old.” But he’s embraced a mentorship-type role with rookies like Christopher Morel. Who could forget the moment last week when Contreras signaled to Morel to take a deep breath, right before Morel hit a walk-off sacrifice fly against the Brewers?

“The team knows who they have,” Contreras said, “and they know what type of person they have in the clubhouse and behind and behind the plate. And they know everything about me.”

If the Cubs were to offer Contreras an extension, would he want to stay? The Cubs, No. 4 in the National League Central, aren’t heading for a championship this year, and it’s unclear when they’ll pry open their next championship window.

“I want to compete for a playoff spot, and I want to compete for a World Series shot again,” Contreras said. “And I think for this team to get to the World Series again, it’s going to take the front office putting a lot more pieces together.”

The front office’s next chance to illustrate their trajectory is the trade deadline in less than two months. But without a miraculous climb back into contention, the Cubs are positioned to be deadline sellers. And Contreras could be a valuable trade chip.

Contreras paused when asked if he expects he’ll be traded.

“That’s a tough one,” he said. “To be honest, if it happens, it happens. I know the deadline’s coming. I’m not trying to think about it. … If I happen to get traded, I hope it’s to a good team that has a chance to go to the World Series. Or if a trade doesn’t happen, I’ll be happy to stay and keep competing with my teammates.

“As of right now, I’m still a Chicago Cub, and I’m proud of that.”

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