Chicago Cubs prospect Willson Contreras gives team options at catcher moving foward


Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras’ rise may have major implications on Kyle Schwarber in the near future.  

The Chicago Cubs have Kyle Schwarber version 2.0 in their minor league system. Let that sink in for a second.

Despite the fact that many of their top prospects found their way to the Major Leagues this season, the Chicago Cubs still boast a number of tremendous position players that remain in their minor league system. One of those players is 23-year-old, Venezuelan-born catcher Willson Contreras. While he remains a few years removed from a potential Major League call up, Contreras could pose a challenge to Kyle Schwarber for the long-term solution at catcher for the Chicago Cubs.

Contreras signed with the Chicago Cubs during the international free agent signing period in 2009. He has played for several teams within the Chicago Cubs minor league system and accumulated a slash line of .275/.345/.398 across seven seasons of work. In 2015, Contreras put together the best season of his minor league career with the Chicago Cubs Double-A affiliate the Tennessee Smokies. In 126 games, he slashed .333/.413/.478 with eight home runs and 75 RBIs. rated Contreras as the fifth best minor league catching prospect of 2015. He is the tenth rated prospect within the Chicago Cubs minor league system.

"Developing more strike-zone discipline has been the key to Contreras’ offensive improvement. It also should help him start translating his solid raw power to all fields into home run production. He has the upside of a .270 hitter with 15 homers on an annual basis. Contreras’ arm strength and athleticism prompted his move from third base to catcher. He’s quicker than most backstops and can shut down the running game. He still needs work on his receiving but has made strides in that regard. —"

FanGraph data suggests that Contreras’ improvement this season was largely due to a better approach at the plate. His strikeout percentage dropped to 11.9 percent of plate appearances which was five percentage points lower than any other season since 2010 when he played 17 games with the Chicago Cubs Dominican Summer League team. In Arizona league ball with the Solar Sox in 2015, Contreras posted a walk rate of 13.5 percent which was a career high.

ESPN insider Keith Law recently watched Contreras play in an Arizona Fall League game with the Solar Sox. Here is what he had to say about the Chicago Cubs prospect.

"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. —-Content courtesy of ESPN insider Keith Law"

Throughout his minor league career, Contreras played a number of positions including catcher, all the infield positions except shortstop, and the corner outfield positions. However, in his last three minor league seasons, Contreras spent most of his time at catcher and this is the position that the Chicago Cubs envision him playing in the Majors.

According to Chicago Cubs prospect writer John Arguello, Contreras is an extremely talented but raw catcher. For example, Arguello explained that Contreras has an extremely strong arm but his release is too long and slow to consistently catch stealing base runners. His ability to shorten up his throwing motion while still producing velocity on his throws will come to him as he continues to develop. Mesa Solar Sox manager Mark Johnson pointed to a few other things that Contreras needs to work on to improve his catching skills.

"Just the nuances of catching, the pitch calling, game management, but he’s getting here. –Quoting Mark Johnson, quote originally obtained by John Arguello"

His raw catching skills translated into a 31 percent caught stealing rate. To put these numbers in perspective, lets look at the caught stealing percentage of some of the Cubs catchers in 2015. Veterans David Ross and Miguel Montero had a 26 and 20 percent caught stealing percentage respectively. These numbers are useful for comparison;however, keep in mind that they occurred at drastically different levels—-Double-A and lower for Contreras versus the Major Leagues for the other two. Here is a more useful stat for comparison. According to baseball reference, Kyle Schwarber had a minor league career caught stealing percentage of 25 percent—-significantly worse than Contreras.

So what does Contreras’ development mean for Kyle Schwarber who also plays catcher?

Before anybody panics, Kyle Schwarber will remain a Cub even if Contreras continues his rapid rise towards the Majors. As ESPN writer Jesse Rogers put it, left-handed power hitters are too rare to get traded.  The question isn’t if Schwarber will play with the Chicago Cubs in the coming seasons, rather it is what position he will play moving forward.

While Schwarber only played catcher in 21 games in 2015, Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said the team hasn’t given up on him as their catcher of the future.

"The fact that he wants to catch is a really big deal. A lot of guys catch through college, catch through the minor leagues. They don’t love it. And I think that’s a really limiting factor to being really good at it. That’s a position where you have to sit there in the film room and study like crazy. You have to be willing to take the pounding necessary to do it. And he wants to do it. We believe in him. —-Quote obtained by CSN-Chicago writer Patrick Mooney"

In terms of raw talent at the position, Schwarber lags behind Contreras. However, Kyle still emphatically believes that he can play catcher at the Major League level.

"It really f—— pisses me off when people say I can’t catch. —-Quote obtained by CSN-Chicago writer Patrick Mooney"

Contreras remains a few years removed from a Major League call up. Most sources project that his time will come at the end of 2016 at the earliest, and a call up that early really depends on the fate of some his teammates.  Veteran catchers Miguel Montero and David Ross remain under team control for next season and it is unlikely that the Chicago Cubs would carry four catchers on their roster, even during the annual September 1 roster expansion period. The problem highlighted in this article won’t manifest itself until a later date.

October 20, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber (12) rounds the bases after he hits a solo home run in the first inning against the New York Mets in game three of the NLCS at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Ironically, while both Schwarber and Contreras play catcher as their primary position they both have the ability to play the corner outfield positions as well. This gives the Chicago Cubs options moving forward and will allow manager Joe Maddon the ability to play both players in the starting lineup simultaneously. Whichever player loses out at catcher will simply play in the outfield.

In the near future, the Chicago Cubs will likely deal with a problem that many teams wish they had: too much depth. Even if the Contreras ultimately plays catcher for the Cubs in the future, Schwarber’s bat is too valuable to be taken out of the lineup. The Cubs have an incredible assortment of young position depth. They are hoping that all these young players will bring a World Series Championship back to the North Side of Chicago in the near future.

Next: Chicago Cubs had magical 2015 season

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