By Rich Arleo
CBS Local Sports, in our 30 Players 30 Days spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.
2016 season (Minors): 55 G, 204 AB, .353 BA, 9 HR, 43 RBI, 4 SB, 1.035 OPS
2016 season (Majors): 76 G, 252 AB, .282 BA, 12 HR, 35 RBI, 2 SB, .845 OPS
When Theo Epstein took over the Chicago Cubs in 2011 they were coming off their second straight sub-.500 season and didn’t seem to have a World Series run in them anytime soon. In a few short years, Epstein amassed a load of young talent with some savvy trades and signings and smart drafting. He brought in the perfect manager in Joe Maddon and ended a 107-year drought with a World Series trophy in ‘16. The crazy part is that they’ve not only hit on seemingly every prospect so far, they just keep coming, and Willson Contreras is ready to become another star on this star-studded squad.
Signed as an international free agent at 16 years old out of Venezuela, Contreras came along slowly in the Cubs’ system before finally reaching Double-A after six years in the Minors. That season also happened to be Contreras’ coming out party with a .333/.413/.478 line, eight homers and 75 RBIs in 126 games for Double-A Tennessee. After the big season, Contreras landed in the top 70 of Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com prospect rankings to start last year and was considered the top catching prospect in the league.
Contreras wasn’t really expected to make his big league debut last year, let alone become such a key part of the Cubs’ championship run. Contreras absolutely tore it up at the plate at Triple-A Iowa to start the season. On June 17, the Cubs called him up and he never looked back. With his bat clearly ready, Contreras was still improving behind the plate and started as the team’s third catcher behind Miguel Montero and David Ross in order to ease into the big leagues. Contreras wanted no part of easing in and showed it by hitting a home run in his first big league at-bat.
He went on to make 64 starts for the Cubs — 41 at catcher, 21 in left field, 2 at first base. His versatility came in handy last year, but with Kyle Schwarber transitioning to a full-time outfielder (likely only catching on emergency basis), Ross retiring and Montero dealing with an ailing back problem and decreased production, Contreras is all lined up to be the starting catcher.
Contreras has the ability to be an elite offensive threat behind the plate, and he showed that last season. Among backstops with at least 250 plate appearances, Contreras’ .206 ISO (isolated power) ranked fourth and 126 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) ranked first. While his strikeout rate (23.7%) wasn’t terrible, he’d ideally lower it a bit. Based on his 13.3 K% at Triple-A last year and 11.9 K% the year before in Double-A, he should eventually be able to adjust and limit the swings and misses.
Projections of Contreras for ‘17 are bullish; with a .264/.334/.428 line, 14 homers and 2.4 WAR (eighth highest among catchers) from ZiPS and a .271/.347/.432 line, 13 homers and 2.3 WAR (10th among catchers) from Steamer. He should easily be a top 10 catcher in baseball this year as the likely No. 5 hitter in a stacked lineup for the defending champion Cubs.
Rich Arleo is a freelance sports writer and editor who covers Major League Baseball and fantasy sports. You can follow him on Twitter, @Rarleo.