Prospects Progress is the annual offseason series that takes a very close look at various prospects in the Cubs’ organization, one prospect at time. This year, though, rather than just write up those prospects that I happen to find interesting, I’m going to start at the top of the Bleacher Nation Top 40 and work my way down. That means the first man up is catcher Willson Contreras.
In his first year in Double A, Contreras posted his best batting average (.333), on-base percentage (.413), and slugging percentage (.478) of any regular season level, age, or year in his career. That performance – he won the Southern League batting title – combined with some pretty good defense behind the plate, catapulted him from an anonymous figure that even many of the most dedicated Cubs’ fans had never heard of all the way to the top of the Cubs’ prospect charts.
Ok, so according to Baseball America, he is only Number Two. Close enough.
Just as remarkable as his ascent up the charts has been the fact that no one saw it coming. Every major prospect pundit I can find had nice but fairly standard things to say about Contreras this time a year ago, and we know that he was actually eligible for the Rule 5 draft last season (and in seasons before that) and every single team passed on him. I cannot remember any prospect being missed so completely by so many people who genuinely know their stuff.
Since he did come out of nowhere, we have to ask the question: is it going to last? We have seen prospect flash-in-the-pans come and go over the years, and many of them faded fairly rapidly once they hit the majors (or even before). I suspect there are some fans who remember that history and are eager to trade away Contreras before he suffers a similar fade, but I am not in that camp. I think Contreras is unlikely to produce at quite these levels long term, but as a prospect he is the real thing.
My confidence in Contreras can be summarized in two numbers. His 2015 walk rate was a career high 10.9%, and his strikeout rate of 11.9% was the lowest he has posted since rookie ball. Those two numbers, from a player in Double A, bode very well for Contreras’s future. They paint a picture of a guy who is able to recognize good pitches to hit, and who has the ability to consistent hit the ones he likes. His .478 SLG suggests that when he does hit one, he tends to make fairly solid contact (another factor that bodes well).
The only red flag I see in his 2015 season is the BABIP: .370. That is substantially higher than his previous career high Batting Average on Balls In Play of .337, and it suggests that there may be some regression on the way for Contreras. Some of that increase in BABIP can be explained by the increase in SLG (which in turn can be explained by a guy growing into his power and making some adjustments to his swing and approach), but odds are good that a portion of it was just plain old good luck. We can’t count on luck helping him every year, so with lesser luck we would see somewhat of a decrease in BABIP that would result in a small drop in his three slash line stats.
How fast he gets the majors will also depend on his glove. Reports from Double A and the Arizona Fall League are promising, so for now we have every reason to be optimistic. He’ll be the primary catcher for Iowa next season, so we should have plenty of opportunity to monitor his progress behind the plate. Since he’s been added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 anyway, look for Contreras to be the first catcher called from Iowa should the Cubs have a need during the regular season.
I see no reason to rush catchers along (unless they have a premium bat like Kyle Schwarber, anyway), so I would not be surprised to see Contreras spend nearly all of 2016 in Iowa. That would set him up to split time with Miguel Montero during the last season of Montero’s contract in 2017 and, should things go well, replace Montero as the primary catcher in 2018. Injuries or trades could certainly accelerate that schedule.
Whatever the timing, in Contreras I think the Cubs have developed a potentially very valuable guy. If he can be a little better than average at the plate and no worse than average behind it, he could be good for 4+ WAR a season in a few years. Iowa fans should be pretty excited to see him in person next spring.