By my estimation, the Chicago Cubs have two top prospects in the upper minors that are most likely to come up and make an impact in the second half of the 2016 season.
The first is center field extraordinaire Albert Almora, and the second is the top catching prospect in all of baseball – and top BN Cubs Prospect overall – Willson Contreras.
Today, we’ll talk about the latter, because yesterday, Contreras smacked two home runs in the I-Cubs’ 11-0 stomping of the Albuquerque Isotopes (including a grand slam).
The two homers were part of a 4-5 night that included five RBI and raised Contreras’s slash line considerably (more on that in a bit). First, let’s check out the home runs.
Starting with the grand slam to right center field:
That was a deep shot the other way, and it gave the I-Cubs a 10 run lead over the Isotopes.
But, just for good measure, Contreras added a second solo shot later in the game. You can never be to comfortable with a lead, right?
Another opposite field shot, and, as you can probably tell, offense will not be the thing that keeps Contreras in AAA. In fact, Epstein recently discussed his skill-set, expectations and future with Patrick Mooney here at CSN Chicago, and it revealed quite a bit about how and when Contreras will get that final promotion.
- To begin, Epstein repeats a mantra we’ve heard many times before. “We think it’s really important that our best prospects spend as close to a full year as possible at the Triple-A level.” Of course, in the past that’s been an extremely flexible truism, depending on the organization’s needs (for example: Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber), but Contreras might be a little bit different. For one, the Cubs have a (more than) capable big league catching tandem in Miguel Montero and David Ross. And for another, it would be unreasonable to expect Contreras to come up and immediately handle a staff with a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) and multiple two-time World Series Champions (John Lackey and Jon Lester).
- Epstein later confirms as much, claiming that AAA is especially valuable to catchers, because it’s as close to the difficulties and dynamics of Major League Baseball as one can get. In AAA, Contreras (a converted, non-native catcher) will learn how to handle pitchers, call games and maintain his disposition even at the most critical moments of a tight game. If there’s any position on the field that requires a maximum amount of experience, it is undoubtedly the guy behind the plate.
- And although some things are different for catching prospects (as opposed to any other positional type), some of it is the same. Specifically, making mistakes, learning from them, making adjustments and finding success once again is still crucial. Contreras, however, has had a pretty straightforward and successful stretch of baseball over the past year and a half. Indeed, he went from relative obscurity to the single best prospect in a still quite strong Cubs minor league system. A little bit of struggles, exposure might do him more good in the long run than a continued stretch of dominance.
- But, don’t get me wrong, Epstein is well aware of how well Contreras has been doing so far in 2016, telling CSN: “He’s a really talented hitter … he hits the ball hard, sprays line drives from line to line, drives the ball through the gaps, doesn’t strikeout a lot, [and] has a pretty good feel for the strike zone.”
- Yeah, uh, what he said. So far this season, Contreras has kept a head-shakingly-awesome .333/.421/.562 slash line with a strikeout rate (11.6%) that is less than his walk rate (13.2%). His BABIP has been a tad high (.351), but that’s really picking nits for a catcher that hits the ball as hard as he does and has a 165 wRC+ (.431 wOBA). The truth is, Contreras has been an offensive force, and that kind of goes double, because he’s a catcher.
- So, as you can imagine, Contreras’s time spent at AAA Iowa right now is far less about improvements or adjustments at the plate and more about continuing behind it. As far as Epstein is concerned, AAA is the perfect place to do that, because of the mix of pitchers – veterans and youngsters alike – that Contreras will have the opportunity to work with.
- Indeed, Epstein flat out says that Contreras is really working on “the nuances of running a pitching staff,” down in Iowa, as that appears to be the last remaining piece of the puzzle. Apparently, that’s not quite something he was entirely capable of doing in AA Tennessee last year, for one specific reason: scouting reports.
- According to Epstein, AAA is really the first place where advanced scouting reports become apart of the calculus. Of course, at the Major League level, that is a hugely important factor, so becoming extremely comfortable with using scouting reports to their fullest potential is something that Contreras will needs to practice in Iowa every single day.
- You’ll be pleased to know, though, that the intangibles of handling a pitching staff and utilizing a scouting report are among the last things Contreras needs to work on. According to Epstein, Contreras is already a fantastic defensive catcher.
So, it would seem, that like us, Cubs President of Baseball Operation Theo Epstein is a big fan of Contreras. Although he may still have some time yet at AAA Iowa, Contreras, who is already on the 40-man roster, may yet find himself in the majors this season.