BALTIMORE — Willson Contreras said he won’t be surprised by anything the Cubs might say against him in Thursday’s arbitration hearing because he’s heard it all before and because he understands it’s just business anyway: No hard feelings.
But he also has never been through the process. And can only guess about what to expect.
“I think it’s a lot easier when you win,” said Ian Happ, the one teammate who has gone through it with the Cubs and who was able to advise Contreras on some of the procedures and answer some of the All-Star catcher’s questions about it earlier this year.
Happ beat the Cubs in his hearing last year to win a $4.1 million salary ($850,000 more than the Cubs’ argued), then avoided arbitration this year by agreeing to a $6.85 million deal.
“There’s a part of the process where you feel like you’re the best player in the world, and there’s part of the process where you feel like you’re the worst player in the world,” Happ said.
Happ, the Cubs’ union representative, said it’s important to understand the process as a right that players have fought to win, one of the few salary levers a player has “to fight for what you’re worth — or a fraction of what you’re worth.
“And I commend any player that is willing to stand up for that line and try to push not only themselves but the market forward.”
Teams have been under increasing pressure from the league and peers in recent years to draw hard lines on arbitration settlements, with the Cubs opting to fall in line no matter how bad the club looks in taking its best player to a hearing in his final year of eligibility — while at the same time preparing to trade him rather than discuss an extension.
The compliance across the league reached silly and even embarrassing levels when a report by The Athletic in 2019 (and confirmed by NBC Sports Chicago) revealed the annual awarding of a cheap, replica “championship belt” to the team that did the best job keeping salaries down in arbitration.
Contreras, who entered the season with the top career OPS among catchers since he debuted in 2016, seeks $10.25 million; the club has filed at $9 million.
When it comes to the hours-long hearing, which is being conducted via Zoom, Happ advised Contreras on everything from “what to do, what to wear, how to hold yourself.”
Contreras asked if he gets to talk. Happ told him no; he must sit quietly and let the lawyers representing side make their cases.
“It’s definitely something you’re not going to agree with,” Happ said. “But that doesn’t mean that you can get frustrated or upset in the moment.
“Going in with that mindset is important,” he said. “Also it’s a lawyer from the other side making the claims, which helps a little bit, I guess. As opposed to someone from the team.”
Arbitration history is filled with combative cases that embittered relationships between players and teams, sometimes irreparably.
Team president Jed Hoyer said his relationship with Contreras is great and expects it to stay that way. Contreras said he’ll be fine with whatever is said in the hearing. And the professional side of the relationship isn’t long for the world anyway.
“There’s been arbitration cases in the past where teams have gone over the line,” Happ said. “I can tell you in mine, the Cubs did not go over the line. They stayed on topic and worked through the points instead of doing something that was completely and totally out of line, which other teams have.
“And I respect the Cubs for taking that stance, and I don’t expect them to do anything different with Willson.”