Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

willson contreras smokiesBack in Spring Training, I was exiting the back fields in a way that would leave me vulnerable to batting practice homers to right field. You have to head out down a particular path, and, when I turned the corner at the end of that path, I knew I’d be left without the ability to see very well what was coming at me. So I waited until a righty stepped to the plate, figuring that it was less likely that he’d be taking one out the other way. I knew who he was, and I knew he had some pop, but I was fairly unconcerned.

As I turned the corner at the outfield wall, the loud whisper of a ball cutting the air rose in my ear, and I watched as an opposite-field shot fell just five feet in front of me, spraying a bed of rocks. Like an idiot, I was on the phone with The Wife at the time, and I wonder if the panic in my voice registered as I described to her just how closed I’d come to getting brained.

The guy who hit it? Willson Contreras. Clearly, even then, I wasn’t paying enough attention to him.

The accolades just keep rolling in for the Chicago Cubs catching prospect, who broke out in 2015 in a big way. Not only did he continue his development behind the plate, but Contreras also took home the Southern League batting title, hitting a crisp .333. The overall line was .333/.413/.478, good for a 156 wRC+. Sure, the career-best .370 BABIP played a huge part, but the ISO was strong (.145), the walk rate was very good (10.9%), and the strikeout rate was incredible (11.9%).

When Contreras was named a post-season All-Star by the Southern League, then, it was earned. He was also named an All-Star by Baseball America.

As we’ve discussed at length on Contreras, who wound up Luke’s top prospect for the Cubs in the latest BN Top 40 update, there’s a tension in trying to figure out what the future holds. On the one hand, he has not shown this level of offensive production in the past, and the prior scouting reports on his future offensive ability were mixed. On the other hand, there was very little in his performance this year that screamed fluke, including those who watched him regularly and routinely barreling the ball.

Was it a fluke, or was it a 23-year-old prospect, three years deep into a catching conversion, finally becoming comfortable enough with his overall game to break out offensively? It’s worth noting that, in 74 plate appearances over the offseason, Contreras hit .273/.324/.545 in the competitive Venezuelan Winter League. His numbers the previous two years were solid, as well, especially when you consider that they came in the offense-depressing Florida State and Midwest Leagues.

Luke clearly bought in. For my part, I buy that Contreras has legitimate offensive upside, and, although he’s probably not going to sustain that level of production at AAA or in the bigs, if the glove is average behind the plate, this is the potential impact guy. I want to see how he handles AAA – both at the plate and behind it – before I voice out loud what my gut is screaming about just how huge I think Contreras could be. But he’s right up there with any positional prospect in the Cubs’ system right now.

We’ll next get to evaluate just how impactful Contreras could be in the coming years when he stops by the Arizona Fall League, which kicks off October 13.

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