“He’s shown that he belongs here. He’s definitely shown that he can do this. (He’s saying): ‘I’m staying here. I’m not going anywhere.'”
Although that feels like something that could have been said about 10 players or so, over the past year and a half, that’s actually what Cubs Manager Joe Maddon had to say about new Cubs catcher/part-time left fielder Willson Contreras.
So comfortable with and impressed by Contreras are the Cubs that, with David Ross now on the disabled list, it’ll be Contreras who will catch Jon Lester this weekend (Tribune). That says a lot.
Not unlike Kyle Schwarber in the summer of 2015, Contreras showed up to Wrigley Field surprisingly and ahead of schedule, immediately making an impact with his bat, and playing where he was needed. Somehow, in a sea of talented young Cubs players, it is Contreras who’s most caught our attention and merited praise in 2016.
It should be no surprise, then, that he’s caught the attention and praise of the media, as well. In three separate recent pieces, Contreras has gotten some serious love and attention, which I’m here to share with you. Enjoy.
First, at CSN Chicago, Tony Andracki discusses that oh-so-obvious Contreras passion and enthusiasm, by way of Mark Johnson, who worked with Contreras at Double-A Tennessee. Johnson recalls that Contreras has always been an emotional player, even when it was working against him. “He’s always played with so much passion and fire, which is beautiful to have.” Indeed, despite my love for the Kris Bryants, Anthony Rizzos, Albert Almora Jr.’s, and Addison Russells of the Cubs system, not many play with the raw excitement of Willson Contreras. It’s not something you need – as any of the other players listed serve to prove – but it undoubtedly makes Contreras a fun player to watch.
That said, his ability to turn that raw emotion on when he needs it, but stay focused and calm in other situations is what has allowed him to succeed. “He’s always been so aggressive and always tried to do too much,” Johnson told CSN, “whether it was his throwing, his catching, his receiving, his hitting. When he started understanding he didn’t have to do as much as he was trying to do, and could simplify things and minimize movements, it started to take off for him.”
And take off they have, but we’ll get to his numbers in a second. The important takeaway here is that Contreras has learned – through maturation – the importance of channeling his intensity into an on-field advantage. Watch him any day, and it’s easy to see this in action.
But as we know, no one can survive on just passion and talent alone. Baseball is a very hard game that requires daily practice, patience and education. But according to Patrick Mooney at CSN Chicago, Contreras is succeeding in that regard, as well. Of course, in the Majors, you mostly learn through your mistakes. For example, Joe Maddon pointed out that Contreras learned a valuable lesson after whiffing three times against the Mets Jeurys Familia with the bases loaded in the ninth inning last week on pitches that weren’t even in the zone.
Indeed, a lot of focus surrounding Contreras’s call-up was rightfully about his continued education behind the plate, but as a young slugger, he still has plenty to learn at it, as well. There will be struggles, there will be failures (like that Thursday night against the Mets, for one example), but as long as he’s open to learning what went wrong and processing it for next time, Contreras has as good of a shot as anybody to be a truly special player. According to Theo Epstein, Contreras isn’t just learning, though, he’s thriving and quite literally forcing himself into the lineup on a daily basis, per CSN. Adding, “he’s obviously played himself into a position to take on real responsibility and help the team win.” Good for him.
Lastly, at Vice Sports, Rian Watt retells the legend that is Willson Contreras’ rise from a third basemen in Venezuela to the catcher for the Chicago Cubs. Teasing the tale, with, “the story of Contreras’s marvelous major league debut is also very much, and very intentionally, the success story of a relentless organizational focus on eliminating what had been, for many years, an area of real positional weakness.” Of course, the Cubs had drafted/signed and developed each of Geovany Soto and Welington Castillo, but neither are with the organization any longer, and, more importantly, neither have half as bright of a future as Contreras.
But, as Watt reminds us through Jason McLeod’s words, ours is a reality that almost wasn’t.
Not two years ago, Contreras was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft and went unselected – right now, that’s looking like 30 mistakes, one from every team including the Cubs [Brett: Well, 29, since the Cubs were right not to protect him – after all, he didn’t get selected!].
Fortunately, Contreras stayed in the organization and really started to break out over the past year and a half. Assistant Director of Player Development Alex Suarez (the original champion of Contreras-as-a-catcher for the Cubs) and McLeod both mark Contreras’s time spent with Kyle Schwarber in Tennessee as a big turning point in his development. “Interestingly, both executives suggested,” according to Watt, “that Schwarber’s biggest impact on Contreras was not in his performance at the plate—though of course that mattered—but in modeling the way he almost willed himself to become a big league catcher, despite the odds ….”
Although there is a ton of good stuff in Watt’s article – including the unofficial plan behind the plate being focused solely on pitchers that throw a lot of strikes – but I don’t want to spoil anymore of it, because you should really check it out for yourself. That said, Watt’s thoughts on Schwarber and Contreras working so well together intrigues me quite a bit. Although Schwarber is returning from knee surgery – which might make a a future behind the plate questionable – it’s difficult not to salivate at the thought of an open door, swinging back and forth between left field and catcher with lefty and righty mashers like Contreras and Schwarber. They complement each other so well and could be a huge – dare I say, unfair – advantage for a manager like Joe Maddon.
Of course, we’re quite a ways off from that reality, but it’s just something to chew on. In the meantime, enjoy Contreras’s work at the plate, his work behind the plate and these excellent writers’ work on that work. Contreras is here to stay, and, if you can’t tell, you should be quite pleased about that.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.