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Cubs catcher options in MLB free agency post-Willson Contreras

For all the talk about shortstop, starting pitching and center field, don’t discount catcher among the Cubs’ offseason needs.

With team president Jed Hoyer saying he “absolutely” wants to compete in 2023 following back-to-back disappointing seasons, there’s reason to believe the Cubs have to get better this winter.

Not only that, but get better while also backfilling the loss of three-time All-Star starter Willson Contreras as he leaves in free agency.

The Cubs have Yan Gomes returning in 2023 but are expected to explore the catching market with Contreras having officially declined their qualifying offer.

PJ Higgins will also return in 2023 as good depth with versatility to play around the diamond. Prospect Miguel Amaya by now should have been an option but has dealt with injury setbacks and is still looking to make his big-league debut.

While that very well could come next season, the Cubs can’t count on him to be in the mix as they build their roster this winter.

Hoyer was asked how he views the catching spot after Contreras turned down the qualifying offer.

“It’s a two-way position,” Hoyer said at the GM Meetings. Obviously, you want guys who can hit, but it’s a run-prevention position.

So much of it is game-calling, preparation, feeling strongly about everything that pitchers do is a ‘we’ thing. It’s about teamwork and that collaboration.”

Contreras is the top free agent catcher on the market this winter. Here are five who could be options for the Cubs.

Christian Vasquez

The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma reported the Cubs have internally discussed Vázquez and Omar Narvaez.

Vazquez, 32, is a two-time champion with the Red Sox who debuted in 2014. He had spent his entire career in Boston before being traded to the Astros this past summer.

He has a solid track record at the plate and has been among the game’s best defensive catchers in recent seasons. Since 2019, he’s tied for third among catchers (minimum 2,000 innings) with 22 Defensive Runs Saved and ranks fourth in FanGraphs’ framing metric.

Vazquez figures to have a competitive market as the top free agent catcher available behind Contreras.

Omar Narvaez

Narvaez, who turns 31 in February, was a bat-first catcher earlier in his career who appeared to take strides defensively with the Brewers in recent seasons. Since 2020, he’s 13th in Defensive Runs Saved (minimum 1,500 innings), according to FanGraphs.

Framing metrics weren’t kind to him pre-Milwaukee but he’s graded as one of the game’s best in that department the last two seasons.

A left-handed hitter, Narvaez posted his lowest career OPS in 2022 but was an All-Star in 2021 (. 743 OPS).

Mike Zunino

Zunino is a bounce-back candidate, depending on his medicals. He was an All-Star and earned down-ballot MVP votes in 2021, when he hit 33 home runs.

His offensive production slipped in 2022, and he was limited to 36 games before undergoing season-ending surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in his left (catching) arm.

Zunino said he expects to be 100 percent ready for spring training. He may not command more than a one-year deal as he looks to return to the field.

Tucker Barnhart

The metrics weren’t kind in 2022 to Barnhart, whom the Tigers acquired from the Reds last winter. He posted -6 Defensive Runs Saved and rated as a negative framer, according to FanGraphs.

That said, Barnhart was working with a less-than-championship-caliber pitching staff in Detroit and has a reputation as one of the game’s better defensive backstops. He has two Gold Gloves on his mantle.

His 2022 might knock down his market enough to put him in play with what the Cubs want to spend at the position.

Austin Hedges

Hoyer stressed catcher is a run-prevention position, which is where hedges could apply as a low-cost option.

Hedges is not going to make up for the offensive loss of Contreras; he posted a .489 OPS and a -0.9 oWAR (Baseball Reference) in 105 games with the Guardians last season.

While he hasn’t posted a positive WAR offensively since 2018, he can hold his own behind the plate. Hedges finished with a 1.4 and 1.2 dWAR the last two seasons.

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