By the start of the 2015 season, most of the Cubs’ “core players” for the current run had been identified. Or so we thought.
In the infield, we knew that some combination of Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and Kris Bryant would be involved. And in the outfield, we knew that some combination of Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, and possibly/hopefully Albert Almora would take the lead.
And then, out of nowhere, this Willson Contreras fella shows up on the scene.
In 2014, Contreras was a recently-converted 22-year-old catcher, exposed to the Rule 5 Draft (and unselected) after posting a 97 wRC+ in High-A.
And then he just exploded. During the 2015, Contreras batted .333/.413/.478 (156 wRC+) at the much more difficult Double-A level, and received glowing reviews on his work behind the plate from a rehabbing Miguel Montero. He quickly became the Cubs’ best prospect, and suddenly, the Cubs had a new, future member of the “core,” and at a spot of great need.
Contreras followed up his breakout 2015 campaign in Double-A with an even stronger start to the season at Triple-A Iowa in 2016. And then … cookies: The Chicago Cubs called up rookie catcher Willson Contreras. Here’s what Brett had to say about the call-up at the time:
Contreras, 24, is the proud owner of a .353/.442/.593 line at AAA (176 wRC+) and a 20-game hitting streak, and peripherals that make you drool (11.7% BB rate, 13.3% K rate, .240(!) ISO). He is the top prospect in the Cubs’ system, and, in these regards, a call-up right now makes plenty of sense.
The question for Contreras at the time, however, was his readiness to catch (game management, pitch framing/receiving) at the big league level – especially for a team with the aspirations of the 2016 Chicago Cubs. But he answered those questions pretty quickly and eventually worked his way up to catching Jake Arrieta (a particularly tough task, given the nastiness and velocity of his pitches). Of course, Contreras’s defense, blocking ability, and knack for throwing out base stealers was excellent almost immediately.
And it’s not as though he was some slouch at the plate either. Through 76 games (283 plate appearances), the Cubs’ rookie catcher (and part-time left fielder, at the time), slashed .282/.357/.488 with 12 home runs, which was ultimately good for a 126 wRC+. And, for what it’s worth, among those with at least 250 plate appearances, that 126 wRC+ leads all catchers in MLB.
Even so, Jed Hoyer thinks he’s about to get better. Perhaps much better.
At the Athletic in an excellent read, Rian Watt writes about Contreras’ rapid rise over the past few seasons, and gets confirmation that the Cubs front office believes there’s even more to come.
“I do think he’ll get better and better offensively next year, not only in learning the pitchers, but also as the mental preparation for catching eases up a little bit,” Cubs GM Jed Hoyer told Watt. “I think that right now, understandably, the catching stuff takes up probably the majority of his mental energy. And so I think as that eases off a little bit, he’ll be able to continue his ascent as a hitter.”
So, in other words, as soon as the catching aspect of his career begins to become more like second nature, the offensive side (which is already pretty great, remember) will improve. For what it’s worth, Depth Charts is projecting a .271/.337/.432 slash line with 14 homers, but I think I’d take the over on everything besides the batting average. The sub-20% strikeout rate looks pretty good, though.
But the real improvement might come behind the plate. According to Watt, Contreras “graded out as a slightly above-average receiver in 2016, according to Baseball Prospectus’s Called Strikes Above Average (CSAA),” something we discussed here recently, but both the Cubs and Contreras believe there’s some room for improvement. Hoyer, echoed the sentiment, praising Contreras for his blocking skills and arm, but adding that the lack of receiving skills are a byproduct of being a relatively recent catcher convert.
If there really is room for improvement, Contreras might quickly turn into one of the Cubs’ most valuable pieces.
Remember, good all-around catchers are rare, and young ones are even rarer. Contreras possesses a unique combination of offensive upside, defensive ability, and the potential and promise to improve as a receiver … all at the age of 24. Should he take that next step forward over the next few seasons, it’s not inconceivable to suggest that the Cubs might have an MVP-caliber backstop.
That’s how important a really good catcher can be, and how good Contreras can become.
Also, a consideration from the financial side of the ledger: with just 108 days of service time registered in 2016, Willson Contreras will not become a free agent until after the 2022 season. He’ll make a hair over the Major League minimum over the next three years before entering arbitration.
Contreras is an extremely valuable asset as well as an extremely valuable core player, any which way you slice it, and he might only improve from here.