It seemingly took all of a few minutes into spring camp for the Cubs to make their intentions clear for their young catcher Willson Contreras. His transition to the role as the Cubs’ no. 1 catcher will also feature a role serving as Jon Lester’s personal backstop. This is significant news for a catcher coming into his first full season at the Major League level, especially considering the strict battery of Lester and David Ross that we’ve seen in the last two years. Handing the reigns to Contreras is a big step, but it’s also the right step.
But what should the expectation be for Willson Contreras as he slots into that full-time gig behind the dish in 2017? Will he continue to be an offensive presence in the lineup? Can he provide steady enough defense to stave off Miguel Montero as the team’s no. 1 catcher? As much as there is to like about Contreras, there are still folks with questions.
If there’s an area in which confidence should be maintained in Contreras, it’s on the offensive side. Contreras literally forced his way to Chicago last season. Obviously, the injury to Schwarber depleted the catching depth to a certain degree, but the former’s offensive performance at Triple-A Iowa was nothing short of stellar. Since his 2015 breakout, there was never any real question about the bat, an idea that was validated with his first taste of Major League action last season. He was able to earn/demand a call-up thanks to a .442 on-base percentage, .240 ISO, and a .378 TAv, all of which factored into a 3.4 WARP.
Of course, we saw that translate into success across 283 plate appearances in Chicago last year. In fact, Contreras not only excelled at the plate, but went as far as to outperform the majority of big league veterans at the position. His .357 OBP trailed only Buster Posey and Yadier Molina among qualifying players at the position. He flashed some power, with a .206 ISO that would’ve trailed only Jonathan Lucroy had Contreras had enough PAs to qualify. It’s very likely that he could also build on those numbers, as his performance in the minors indicates a potential rise in his contact rate (only 70.7 percent with the Cubs in 2016) and an impending decrease in his swinging strike rate (13.9 percent) in 2017. Both of those aspects become expectations with more time at the big league level for Contreras.
There’s definitely an upside here that leads to Contreras as one of the top offensive catchers in baseball, and that’s very likely what the expectation is going to be. His power has clearly developed in the last couple of years, while he continues to make strides in the approach department. As a previously demonstrated high contact ability makes its presence known at the big league level, there really isn’t any reason to think that regression is on the horizon for Contreras. Obviously weird things happen and nagging injuries happen, but Contreras’ offensive stock is likely pointed way up in comparison to many of his counterparts behind the plate across the league.
Some have encouraged “perspective” or tempered their expectations in regard to Contreras’ defense, as it’s been assumed, to a degree, that that’s largely where the development still needs to take place. That’s actually something of a misconception. While Miguel Montero grades out as the superior pitch framer (finishing fourth in Framing Runs), Contreras wasn’t bad in his own right, as he finished 22nd in the league in Framing Runs. He also came in 15th in Blocking Runs, while flashing his arm on more than one occasion in throwing out prospective baserunners and nabbing guys on the pickoff. The arm is the real weapon, but the other elements of his game aren’t bad either. Hence, his status as Jon Lester’s catcher in 2017, as Lester needs someone back there that can control the run game in the way that Contreras can.
If there are shortcomings in Willson’s defensive game, they’re among the very specific intricacies at the position. He might try to frame a ball from too far outside of the strike zone or mishandle certain pitch types, and that’s where the development comes into play. These are facets of the game that are difficult to quantify, but also that should only improve over the course of the exhibition slate and early in the regular season.
The really significant factor to consider with Contreras and his play in the field relates to how he’ll handle the pitching staff in 2017. He worked extensively with John Lackey last year and will catch Jon Lester, as we established. David Ross will be in his ear regarding the latter this spring. Will the Cubs trust him enough to hand him the reigns to Jake Arrieta or Kyle Hendricks? Arrieta is extremely particular about the way his games are called, while framing is paramount for Hendricks’ success. That’s an aspect to watch this spring and early on in the season. There is, of course, room for the other elements of the defensive game to improve, but he’s much farther along than many have given him credit for.
The contingencies, in the event that Contreras should struggle in 2017, aren’t entirely clear. Miguel Montero could take over as the starter, but then you’re talking about a multitude of offensive questions. Kyle Schwarber isn’t going to catch more than a day or two a week, and that might be optimistic. Depth at the position is somewhat unclear. But with the entire body of the skill set that Contreras brings to the mix, Plan A would appear to be a stable one.
As such, Contreras hasn’t done anything to indicate that the Cubs should have anything other than the utmost confidence in their young backstop. He’s shown an absolutely tireless work ethic, something that should play well with a veteran pitching staff and help him to continue to improve behind the plate. That’s not something that can necessarily be quantified. But it’ll sure as heck be quantified on the stat sheet. With the potential to build on a strong offensive season in his rookie campaign, the offense should likely be there.
With the upside in mind, it’s really hard to keep expectations in check with Contreras, whether on the offensive or defensive side. Even with the defensive growing pains that could absolutely manifest themselves over the course of the year, though, there’s absolutely reason to be supremely excited about the prospect of Willson Contreras as the Chicago Cubs’ full-time catcher in 2017. He’s the total package at his best, and the final stages of his development should provide for an extraordinary storyline early in the season.
Lead photo courtesy Jon Durr—USA Today Sports