Long before he had emerged as a stud at the big league level, and a potential star catcher for years to come, Willson Contreras was the Cubs’ top prospect, and a semi-surprise call-up to the big league team.
The scene was mid-June, and the Cubs had three catchers on the big league roster already – Miguel Montero, David Ross, and Tim Federowicz – which made Contreras’s addition surprising at the time. There were needs at that time, you’ll recall, but it was mostly in the outfield and on offense. The Cubs had seen Kyle Schwarber (also a third catcher/outfielder) be lost for the regular season, Jorge Soler had just strained another hamstring, and, although the Cubs had just traded for Chris Coghlan, it wasn’t clear just what he was going to be able to contribute. Miguel Montero was dealing with back issues, and wasn’t himself at the plate. (We didn’t know it at the time, but Dexter Fowler was also about to go down with a hamstring injury.)
But Contreras hadn’t played the outfield in years, and would the Cubs really be asking a young player to come up to the big league level and start playing a new position, even after he’d been dedicating himself to becoming a catcher and working on developing his offense? Would they really have him catch occasionally, then go to the outfield, then come back and catch?
Yup. They would, and they did. Contreras started just twice behind the plate before he was asked to head into left field (after a one-game stop at first base), where he started his next four games. Contreras wound up bouncing back and forth between left field and behind the plate – the Kyle Schwarber plan, but with more catching – for two months, before he settled in as a regular catcher in mid-August, in the run up to the postseason.
It’s truly amazing when you look back on that and think of all that was asked of this rookie. But when you observed Contreras, it’s not as if he ever seemed overcome by the moment. The Cubs clearly knew what he could handle.
And, really, it was clear from the very first moment he stepped to the plate as a pinch hitter against the Pirates on June 19 that nothing was going to phase Willson Contreras.
Heck, it was clear from the very first big league pitch he saw:
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) December 28, 2016
I had this moment on my list of moments to revisit as part of this series, and, since the Cubs tweeted it out this week, I figured I might as well pop it up today, eh?
Contreras followed the drama script by sending the first pitch he saw out to center field. And then he sprinted around the bases, absolutely hammering his teammates with high fives at the plate and on the way to the dugout. It was a slice of baseball heaven.
From there, you know the story: Contreras went on to excel, and set himself up to be the Cubs’ primary catcher for their World Series run. Even if the bat doesn’t take a step forward, a guy who hits .282/.357/.488 (126 wRC+) behind the plate is extremely valuable. If the defense continues to improve, beyond his already solid level? If the receiving skills become well above-average? If the bat does get even better? I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’: that’s what an MVP-type catcher looks like.
Let’s not hang that on him right now. Suffice it to say, Willson Contreras was brilliant from his very first moment in the big leagues, and the future looks oh-so bright.