Despite all the praise heaped on him here at Bleacher Nation as elsewhere around the Internet, despite winning the Southern League batting title and ranking among the leaders in on base percentage and slugging percentage, despite being singled out for significant compliments by his major league counterpart, and despite being named the best prospect in the organization in the latest update to the Bleacher Nation Top 40 Prospects list, it is possible we are still undervaluing Willson Contreras and his 2015 season.
Had it not been for the recent run of hitters with names like Bryant, Baez, Soler, Russell, and Schwarber, I think we would be proclaiming Contreras as the next big prospect and would be debating daily whether or not he should win the starting catcher job out of spring training (he shouldn’t). Instead, despite his fantastic season, I think it is possible that he remains a little under-appreciated.
Contreras started the season as a largely unknown 22-year-old backstop playing second fiddle to Kyle Schwarber, himself. On the days he got to catch, he hit well, but it still took several weeks before that positive performance began to translate into prospect respect. And then he made the Southern League All-Star Team (along with Schwarber). After Schwarber was promoted to Iowa (via Chicago), Contreras proceeded to carry the Smokies offense as the primary catcher and it became impossible to ignore his extraordinary breakout season.
Now he ranks as the best in the system on my list and as the fifth best catching prospect in all baseball by MLB Pipeline (a ranking I’d dispute, I might add, as there are at least two names on that list (Alfaro and Pentecost) that I would not have slotted over Contreras right now).
But even those accolades are simply the icing on the cake. The real achievement, and the one that serves as the foundation for everything else we’ve talked about, is right there on his stat sheet. Contreras, in his first season in Double A, very nearly walked as often as he struck out. His strike out rate of 12% is impressive alone, but when packaged together with his 11% walk rate his season looks extraordinary. That is not a common achievement for a Double A player.
At this level, those are reasonably sustainable numbers. He probably won’t match them as he moves to Iowa and Chicago, but it is safe to say that he projects as a high walk, low strikeout, good average, moderate power kind of hitter going forward. Combined with his work behind the plate, a part of his game that I quite liked when I saw it in person, that profile sets Contreras up with a future as a possible starting catcher for the Cubs.
But probably not next year. Next year this breakout prospect will test his bat and his glove against Triple A pitching, and if all goes well, the Cubs will start looking for ways to bring him to Chicago. Regardless, he should get a long look in spring training in a few months.
And that might be the most potent indicator of just how far he has progressed this season (together with even more recent praise from Neil Ramirez, who pitched to Contreras at Tennessee, and Cubs GM Jed Hoyer). Seven months ago almost no one was talking about Willson Contreras. Five months from now, he may well be one of the most closely-observed prospects Mesa. When a guy vaults from obscurity to over-analysis in a single season, you know he has had one amazingly good season.
— Tennessee Smokies (@smokiesbaseball) September 8, 2015