After years of hearing about little other than Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and the rest of the high-profile hitting prospects from the Chicago Cubs farm system, you can excuse fans for having overlooked Willson Contreras. He might be one of the newest arrivals in terms of prospects on the big-league roster, but most would be surprised to learn that he’s currently the Cubs’ most-tenured player in the organization.
Contreras was signed under the Jim Hendry regime all the way back in 2009, when he was just a 17-year-old third baseman. The franchise had just won 97 games and their second consecutive division title, but the farm system was light on prospects. The raw Venezuelan infielder was seen at the time as having potential, but also being a major project. He hadn’t developed any semblance of power or discipline yet, which is common for such young players.
Fast forward a bit to 2015, and Contreras is 23 years old and preparing to play at Double-A for the first time. He had been moved to catcher full-time in 2013 at Single-A, and the results were mixed through the first two seasons of the experiment. The arm was good, but he had miles to go with his receiving and mechanics behind the plate.
But then came the big breakout at the plate.
Contreras hit .333/.413/.478 with 8 home runs in 521 plate appearances at Double-A that year, opening the eyes of many inside and outside the organization. John Arguello wrote about the improvements of Contreras for Scout.com.
Contreras has always had a strong arm, but the arm action for a catcher must be short. Every fraction of a second counts and if you’re rearing back to fire a laser to 2B, it may already be too late before you release the ball. He now has a much shorter, quicker arm action while still maintaining that good arm strength.
Similarly, Contreras has become more consistent with his approach at the plate. He has been patient for stretches, but would then quickly revert to his old ways. And then he has those quick, strong hands. They’ve always been there.
Now, as the leading man behind the plate for the Cubs in 2017, the 25-year-old Contreras continues to take his game to new heights. If you only looked at his offensive numbers to date, you might not be impressed. A .254/.309/.413 slash line with a 93 wRC+ is not very exciting, and the 29.3 percent strikeout rate is on the ugly side. But Contreras has a 0.5 WAR through just 19 games played this season. While WAR will fluctuate as performance waxes and wanes throughout the year, Contreras is on pace for a 3.7-WAR season despite under-performing at the plate thus far.
That’s because Contreras is beginning to bud into a defensive force.
The arm is as accurate as it is strong. He’s caught nine of 16 runners attempting to steal a base, which has him ranked third in all of baseball among catchers that have had at least 10 steal attempts against them. According to Baseball Prospectus, he’s been worth 2.3 Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), which is an excellent number considering how few games he’s played.
Miguel Montero, who now sits on the bench most days in large part because of Contreras, also clearly saw the talent back in 2015. Spending some time with the young man, both while on a rehab assignment at Double-A that year and again the following spring, Montero was impressed with the young catcher.
“He’s still a puppy when it comes to the mental game,” said Montero, a fellow Venezuelan. “He’s a converted guy, but he doesn’t catch like a converted guy. His skills are off the chart when it comes to catching, blocking and throwing. And he’s got a very good bat. He’s going to be able to hit at the big-league level.”
That bit from Montero seems like an understatement, given what we now know.
Contreras had the benefit of coming up last June and sitting behind Montero and former Cubs catcher David Ross, an experience that can’t be undervalued. In just 283 plate appearances, he had a 2.2 WAR with a wRC+ of 126. Contreras also was a major contributor to bringing the Cubs their first World Series championship in 108 seasons, coming up with a handful of memorable moments: a run-scoring single in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants, a home run off Clayton Kershaw in the NLCS, and a double off Corey Kluber in Game 7 of the World Series.
Contreras may not have been the kind of blue-chip prospect that evaluators drone on and on about for years, but he’s always had the potential to be great. Not even a month into his first full season as a major-league player, and it’s clear he’s well on his way.
By Ryan Davis