Contreras, Wellinson 1501 (Mitchell)

Getting to Know Willson Contreras

There is a profile among baseball players that I really like. Whenever I spot guys who have the tools that flash big-league potential, yet are being held back by inconsistencies and/or polish, I want to see how they work to iron those out. That’s one of my favorite parts of winter ball.

Cubs Double-A catcher Willson Contreras fits that profile. For the past few seasons, you’d hear about the young Venezuelan get hot and carry his lineup for a couple of weeks, then go back to being an overlooked light-hitting catcher. This year, however, those two weeks have been stretched out to a whole season. Through 400 Double-A plate appearances, Contreras has hit .342/.418/.496 with 38 extra-base hits. His plate discipline has been there all year, too, as he’s walking at a 10.8 percent clip while limiting the strikeouts to an astounding 12.5 percent. It’s propelled him up to the top 10 Cubs prospect status.

Here’s an interview conducted by Jorge Montenegro during November of 2014, his first full season in Venezuela’s winter league, translated from Tigres Oficial. I think it will help you fall in love with Contreras, and to look past the slash line to see a player who’s a baseball rat.

Anything within brackets is mine, added for context purposes.

Montenegro: “Hello Tigers fans. We find ourselves on the last day of the regular season here in Maracay, Venezuela and we’re talking with one of the primary protagonists of this season. It’s been a season filled with youth and new blood for the Araguan team.

First of all, Willson Contreras, let’s talk about your defensive development. You were the starting catcher since day one of the season, and everyone has lauded the quality of your defense. Let’s talk about how the ability to develop as a catcher has come about for you.”

Contreras: “First of all, thank you for the interview. Thank you for giving me this opportunity. What can you say? It’s like a dream come true. Since I was a kid, I’d always dreamt about starting a game for the Tigers [of Aragua]. My offense has developed bit by bit with constant daily work. This is a very good league, a development league for me, I would say, for my experience. And there’s a lot of pressure so you need to know how to manage that.

I’ve been working the same way I worked with Gustavo Molina [Venezuelan catcher with 15 seasons of pro experience, including four at the MLB level with the Yankees, White Sox, Mets, and Orioles] when he was here, and now I’ve been working with Raul Chavez [21 pro seasons, 11 in the majors], who’s a tremendous mentor regarding catching.”

Montenegro: “Tell me about what happened in that game when you were sent to left field. Everyone thought, ‘Well, what’s going on here?’ But we’re told that you originally signed as an infielder and have played multiple positions.”

Contreras: “Yes, true. My original position was third base, and about a year later the general manager proposed that I move behind the plate and I accepted the challenge. I wanted to show him I’ve never been afraid of playing a new position. When it came to left field here, I was ready for it since they’ve [referring to Cubs coaching] always had me playing the corner outfields because they have faith in my ability to play multiple positions.”

Montenegro: “When people bring you up as a player, one of the subjects that’s surprisingly brought up is your speed—and not just the speed, but also your strength. You’ve demonstrated you’re capable of playing at full strength, yet the Chicago Cubs wanted to send you back to the United States for an endurance program. Luckily, we were able to keep you here for a longer time to play out the season, but tell me about that process.”

Contreras: “I have to thank God for giving me the talent and qualities that He gave me, but a lot of it [the strength development] has been part of a gym process and physical labor. The Cubs wanted me to go back to the States for a weight program [presumably Camp Colvin with Tim Buss].

I want to thank Carlos Guillen [the former AL Champion Detroit Tigers infielder] for making it so I could stay here a little longer. I didn’t want to leave this team alone. I wanted us to make the Round Robin to take part of the rest of this great competition. After my stay concluded, I took on the attitude that I have to keep working and moving forward, as they say.”

Montenegro: “Let’s talk about your experience working with pitchers. Which pitchers or coaches have you related to the most?”

Contreras: “Gustavo Molina. Molina’s a gentleman. He’s a tremendous person. As a player, he always gave me advice on how to deal with pitchers. He’d always tell me what to do with pitchers. He said that at any point a pitcher wasn’t listening to me, I had to go up to the mound and speak to him. Not only speak to him, but to speak well and treat him as a person, and at the same time speak strongly and with authority. This was how I would’ve been able to get them to heed my calls and at the same time get both of us to remain focused on the game.”

Montenegro: “You’ve had to work with some pitchers who are way older than you are. These are men with big-league experience. You’ve worked with [Anthony] Ortega and [Ronald] Belisario. Talk to me about the differences between working with veterans and rookies, then about working with domestic and imported pitchers.”

Contreras: “I wouldn’t tell you that there’s any difference when it comes to working with big-leaguers. You establish what you want to do as a catcher and make sure you stick to that plan with your pitcher. I would say that the biggest difference would be having extra faith in the pitcher, if he were a big-leaguer. They already know how to approach situations. They know the plan and how to stick to it.

[Doug] Mathis is a great pitcher. He understands the zone. He has tremendous command of his pitches. [Chris] Smith is also a great pitcher. I have no complaints about him. He’s always focused and sticks to our plans. David Ramos, well, he’s a kid like me. And I feel that he and I identify because he understands this league. He plays here with love. He has the desire to move forward. He wants to do things right.”

Montenegro: “How do you deal with a pitcher’s weaknesses? Say he doesn’t pound the lower part of the zone as often as you’d like. How would you address it?”

Contreras: “That’s something that you can’t really predict. You have to see it in game action. We notice it during the game and keep a vivid memory of how batters react to our pitches. From there we start working on what makes the batter feel uncomfortable and move on.”

Montenegro: “To conclude, what was the most special part of the season for you?”

Contreras: “Classifying. Reaching the Round Robin in Lara. It was my first [full] year so making it this far is pretty special. I hope to have many more chances to do this in the future. I’ve grown up being a fan of this club, so playing for them is pretty special. I always saw them as underdogs, and vividly recall them coming back from an eight-run deficit. I told myself as a kid ‘I have to play for the Tigers.’”


Related Articles

Leave a comment

Use your Baseball Prospectus username