Willson Contreras Being Groomed as Next Thoroughbred in Cubs’ Stable of Unicorns

You can’t throw a rock on #BaseballProspectTwitter these days without hitting a Willson Contreras superlative, and for good reason. The young, super-athletic catcher is looking like the Next Next Next Next Next Big Thing for a Cubs roster that has already exceeded its quota for big things. And if the stockpile of talent in the organization wasn’t enough, even the unique spelling of his name taunts the opposition by flaunting one of the extra L’s his parent club intends to continue leaving behind.

As a noted pedant, I find it somewhat poetic that Contreras has burst onto the scene not long after the Cubs jettisoned another young catcher with L issues in his name. I was starting to miss correcting people for misspelling “Welington,” so I’m happy to have another moniker about which to exercise my righteous indignation.

But when can I start? How about nowish…


Okay, that’s perhaps a bit unfair. Keith Law does great work and all of us have been bitten by the autocorrect bug a time or twenty. Still, I couldn’t resist. For what it’s worth, the respected baseball writer exercised more jurisprudence in his observation of the minor leaguer:

I only got to see the Cubs’ Willson Contreras hit but not catch, unfortunately, so I can’t speak to his defensive abilities. But I can tell you his swing was one of my favorite right-handed swings in the AFL with a clean path and tremendous body control throughout. He loads back by his right shoulder and explodes forward to the ball with excellent hand strength that allowed him to adjust well to changing speeds and to pitches on the outer third. If he can catch as well as the Cubs believe he can, the decision to convert Kyle Schwarber to another position becomes even easier.

Wait, no. This could shoot all kinds of holes in my idea that War Bear will be a catcher long-term. Or does it? First it was too many shortstops, now it’s too many catchers. But if the Cubs have shown us anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as too many. Well, unless we’re talking about celebrities celebrating on the field with the team. That’s one area in which I could do without redundancy. Or at least Jim Belushi.

Anywho, back to Contreras. How did this kid go from a name known only to prospectniks to the darling of the minor league world seemingly overnight? Well, it started with a breakout season at AA Tennesee in which he slashed .333/.413/.478 with 8 home runs and 75 RBI in 126 games. He also displayed tremendous plate approach, evidenced by a nearly 1:1 BB/K ratio (57:62). And now that success has continued through the first half of the Arizona Fall League.

Christopher Crawford of Baseball Prospectus had a very measured, though still tingle-inducing, appraisal of Contreras’s AFL performance (subscription required):

This might have been the most pleasant surprise of the first half of the Fall League. I knew Contreras had the catch-and-throw skills, and I had seen the statistics that suggested he could hit, but I wasn’t prepared for just how advanced he is offensively. The extension he gets on his swing is impressive, and he hit the ball hard to every part of the field in my multiple looks. This isn’t Kyle Schwarber with the bat or anything, but add in a 55 glove and 60 arm, and I think it’s obvious why so many believe it’s Contreras who will be the backstop of the future in Chicago.

Okay, that’s two guys who are way more prospect-savvy than me saying this kid could either supplant Schwarber or at least beat him out for the eventual starting catcher role. I’m willing to listen. But how eventual is “eventual?”

Well, with David Ross and Miguel Montero both (presumably) back next year, the Cubs can afford to let Contreras marinate and develop his skills for a while longer. And he won’t turn 24 until next May, so there’s no worry about missing out on his prime just yet. Besides, the organization would do well to give the kid plenty of time to prove his 2015 wasn’t an aberration (he hadn’t previously hit better than .273 stateside, and that was 3 years ago in short-season Boise). But his frame (6’1″, 175 lbs) and athleticism (34 — yes, 34! — doubles in 2015) offer mad potential.

He could easily add some beef (Castle?) and increase power without losing much speed or he could remain lithe and lean and perhaps maintain greater positional versatility. Contreras did play 8 games at third last year and has logged fairly significant time at all 4 corner positions throughout his professional career. He’s a catcher for the time being, but one of the side effects of this organizational glut of talent is that the Cubs don’t need to force anything. They have the luxury of allowing the organic development of their next young stud, not to mention that of the major league roster he hopes to join, dictate his eventual position.

And while little is more fun than celebrating the matriculation of a player through the organization, it’d be foolish to overlook the very real possibility that Contreras could be a valuable trade chip either this offseason or the next. Youth, athleticism, and versatility are an intoxicating cocktail (with the attendant hype as the sexy garnish) and you know opposing GMs will be clamoring for a drink.

So does Contreras become part of the Cubs’ future as a member of the roster or part of a deal that fills it out in other areas? I have no idea and, at least for the time being, I really don’t care. For now, I’m just going to sit back and enjoy watching yet another excellent young ballplayer ply his trade in this organization for as long as possible. Oh, I’m also going to enjoy seeing people mess up his name.

Back to top button