Chicago Cubs: Willson Contreras seized No. 1 catching gig
By Randy Holt
It’s been well-documented that the Chicago Cubs have assembled a group of young talent rarely seen throughout the history of Major League Baseball, if ever. The situation behind the plate only added to the allure of the young group on the North Side.
Willson Contreras was an interesting prospect coming into the 2016 season. With the Cubs sporting a pair of aging catchers in David Ross and Miguel Montero, as well as the existent questions regarding Kyle Schwarber‘s future behind the plate (even before the injury), he represented the best hope for stability at the position beyond 2016. Even then, it was widely assumed that his impact would be felt more in 2017 and beyond. How wrong we were.
Making his way to the big leagues in June, Contreras immediately made his presence known with a home run in the first at-bat of his career. This didn’t come as a tremendous surprise to many, as any existent questions surrounding Contreras related more to his defense than his glove. Nonetheless, he went on to provide the Cubs with consistent offense while also fitting right into the versatile group that already existed in Chicago.
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Immediate Offensive Impact
While he didn’t set up to the plate to qualify among the offensive leaders behind the dish, he was more of an offensive threat than most veteran Major League backstops. Among those with at least 250 plate appearances, Contreras finished fourth in isolated power, with a .206 mark that helped to illustrate his ability to hit for extra bases. His park-adjusted offense, indicated by wRC+, came in at 126. This painted him as a well above average offensive player, and no. 1 at the position in that regard.
Of course, as impressive as his bat is, there are still some areas in which he could improve. His 23.7% strikeout rate was a touch higher than you’d like, and his minor league strikeout figures indicate that number should decline as he continues to adjust to Major League pitching. Which one would hope also means that his 13.9% swinging strike rate falls with it, while he experiences a subsequent rise in his ability to make contact, where he came in at 70.7%. He also maintained a 32.3% hard contact rate. With a steady track record of success with the stick at various levels of the minor league system, as well as an intense work ethic that he’s demonstrated to this point, there’s no reason to think that he can’t reach another level and represent the cream of the crop at the position.
Beyond the offense he provides and astounding arm that he fires off at prospective baserunners, Contreras represents a rare entity at the catching position in that he provides a wealth of versatility. That was, of course, toned down in the postseason as he saw more consistent time behind the plate, but the regular season gave him a chance to showcase his value as a player that can be moved from behind the plate to all areas of the field.
Contreras made 64 starts total in 2016 for the Chicago Cubs. Of those starts, 41 came behind the plate (with 57 total appearances at catcher on the season). An additional 21 of them came in left field, while he also made a pair of starts at first base. The fact that he has the athleticism to hold his own is a tremendously admirable quality in a young player and should aid him in becoming a primary asset for the Cubs moving forward.
Future Starting Catcher
There aren’t likely to be many questions about where Contreras stands moving forward. David Ross retired, and it’s unlikely we’ll see Kyle Schwarber behind the plate too often. Miguel Montero’s back was a lingering issue, in addition to his already declining production. Contreras has flashed the potential with the arm and has the work ethic to improve his still-developing defensive skills. With those factors in mind, he’s likely to seize the bulk of the starts behind the plate.
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As such, we should get used to seeing Willson Contreras behind the plate in Chicago. There are still areas in which he’ll need to develop, to be sure. His defensive skills could use some work. Framing and blocking should continue to develop. The presence of Ross last year and Montero moving forward should help him in that regard. The arm back there is undeniable. Which makes him an asset for a pitcher like Jon Lester, who so notably struggles to keep baserunners in check.
When one considers the factors that Willson Contreras brings to the mix, it’s easy to see why so many are so high on him. As his defensive skills continue to develop, his bat will keep him in the lineup regularly, aided by his versatility. He may cede some starts to Montero because of the essential framing aspect, but he’s going to be a fascinating player to continue to analyze.