When Kyle Schwarber was recognized as the fourth best left fielder in all of baseball according to Buster Olney, I was relatively surprised.
I certainly think he is capable of being one of the best left fielders in the game (thanks primarily to a bat with seemingly endless limitations), but to already be considered among the game’s five best at the position (with his middling defense and 71 total games at the ML level), well let’s just say it’s quite the endorsement.
And today, I’m happy to report that another young Chicago Cub (with fewer than 80 Major League games under his belt) has accomplished the exact same feat.
If you’ve been following along with us lately, you’ll know that we’ve been keeping up with Buster Olney’s various positional rankings, as many Chicago Cubs have been recognized.
Specifically, they’ve already notched three of the best starters (Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks), two of the best second basemen (Ben Zobrist and Javy Baez), and one of the best relievers (Wade Davis), first basemen (Anthony Rizzo), third basemen (Kris Bryant), shortstops (Addison Russell), and left fielders (Schwarber). Whew. Today, they add one more notch to the belt.
- Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants
- Jonathan Lucroy, Texas Rangers
- Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
- Yasmani Grandal, Los Angeles Dodgers
- Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals
- Russell Martin, Toronto Blue Jays
- Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees
- Brian McCann, New York Yankees
- J.T. Realmuto, Miami Marlins
- Willson Contreras, Chicago Cubs
Honorable Mentions: Francisco Cervelli (Pirates), Stephen Vogt (Athletics), Sandy Leon (Red Sox), Tucker Barnhart (Reds), Welington Castillo (Orioles), James McCann (Tigers).
Wild Card: Wilson Ramos (Rays)
Before we get to Contreras, let’s discuss some of the rankings from afar. At the top of the rankings, unsurprisingly, we find the game’s two distinguished catchers in Buster Posey and Jonathan Lucroy. Each has dealt with injured and/or ineffective seasons in the recent past, but both are annually fantastic offensive and defensive threats. Then, naturally, Yadier Molina shows up, and things sort of trail off after that (in terms of absolute distinction).
To be fair, catcher is always a difficult position to rank. After all, they require such a wide variety of skills that finding one with the entire package is extremely rare. And further, the art of subjectively ranking catchers depends greatly on what you value most (arm, defense, blocking, game calling, receiving, offense, durability, etc…).
But still, the fact that a young, Cubs catcher with less than 50 starts behind the plate for his career can rank as one of the game’s ten best is mind-boggling. But so is everything Willson Contreras has done so far.
For the most part, I think, we all know Contreras’ story by now. He was a converted catcher, who blew up for the first time at Double-A in 2015, before raking at Triple-A in 2016 and being called up to help the Cubs out in the middle of a postseason race.
Nearer his debut, Conteras did some catching, but was also asked to play a lot of left-field and even some first base for the first time in a very long time. But eventually, he made his way into becoming the starting catcher for Game 7 of the World Series. Now, he’s the Cubs’ sure-fire starter at the spot heading into the 2017 season, and by one measure, is also one of the best at his position throughout the league.
It’s difficult to project just what the limit is for a guy like Contreras, because even though his ascension was very bright, it was also very quick. Within two years, he went from relative obscurity (he was left unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft), to a can’t-miss Major League catcher. In his first full professional season, he slashed .282/.357/.488 (126 wRC+) – which would have ranked out as the 32nd best slash line among all players in MLB – while proving that he has the arm and athleticism to throw runners out at an above average rate. His blocking is considered very good, but his receiving, game calling, and pitcher management is thought to need some work (fortunately, most of those will improve with experience).
And according to Olney, it was that very athleticism and energy which “leaps off the field,” that led evaluators to rank him so highly. In 2017, he’ll likely be asked to handle many more starts, and even pitchers like Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester in the process. It’ll be a tall order, but as the tenth best catcher in the Major Leagues, well, I think he’ll make it work.