GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Cubs built a strong pipeline in Latin America long before “The Boston Show” moved to Chicago. But it should give Theo Epstein’s front office so many options this summer and help frame the next championship window.
The Cubs optioned Willson Contreras (Triple-A Iowa) and Jeimer Candelario (Double-A Tennessee) to the minors on Friday, hoping they could become part of the next wave at Wrigley Field.
Contreras, a Southern League batting champion last year, is essentially viewed as the catcher of the future and untouchable in trade talks. Candelario, an All-Star in the Arizona Fall League, is blocked with Kris Bryant already established as an All-Star third baseman and a Rookie of the Year.
The Cubs wouldn’t have won 97 games last year without the rapid development of Bryant, shortstop Addison Russell (14 career games at the Triple-A level) and outfielder/catcher Kyle Schwarber (during his first full professional season).
But the Cubs will need a new infusion of talent/cheap labor as those young players — ranging in age from 22 to 24 — become expensive through the arbitration system and Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta approaches free agency after the 2017 season.
“We’ve graduated a class that’s up there right now that’s pretty good,” manager Joe Maddon said before Friday’s 3-2 loss to the White Sox at Camelback Ranch. “You would think it should be barren after that because of how good this class is. But then I get to see these guys more readily: Wow!”
Contreras — the organization’s minor league player of the year in 2015 and Baseball America’s No. 67 overall prospect heading into this season — could eventually end the Schwarber catching experiment. MLB.com ranked Contreras, 23, as the game’s top catching prospect and he hasn’t disappointed in the Cactus League (5-for-14 with three doubles and four walks).
The next step for Contreras — who signed out of Venezuela in 2009 — is learning how to handle alpha males like Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey and master an intricate game-planning system.
“(It’s) being able to absorb all that information,” Maddon said, “and get behind there in a major-league game and process it all and then gain that kind of connection with a pitching staff.
“That’s the one thing we really tried to get done this camp from the first day forward — to (get) the pitchers to understand why it’s important to connect with this guy because we definitely see that happening at some point.”
The Cubs are a Big Data team that overloads catchers with scouting reports.
“Willson’s unbelievably connected to all this stuff, passionate about his craft,” Maddon said. “When he gets here, there’s still going to be some problems. There’s a lot to absorb when you come up here as a catcher. We do a lot of stuff in regards to planning, but I have a lot of faith. His English is getting better. He understands why his English needs to get better. He just gets it (and) I think he’ll grow into it.”
Candelario — who signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2010 — could wind up being the headliner in a trade for a top-of-the-rotation starter. Maddon said Bryant’s name never came up during his exit meeting with Candelario, a 22-year-old switch-hitter who’s put up a 1.071 OPS in the Cactus League.
Maddon said: “I just talked about: How can we possibly send you out? You’re the best hitter in the Valley right now. What’s wrong with us?
“He doesn’t give up a swing in BP. He hits everything hard in batting practice. So I don’t think it’s a big secret why he does the same thing in the game.”
Of course, spring numbers lie, injuries happen and it’s in an organization’s best interests to talk up prospects and set trade bait. But the Cubs showed last year how aggressive they can be with young players, meaning Contreras and Candelario could make a difference at some point this season.
“I totally believe that,” Maddon said. “It’s not an aberration. So, yes, I do think that if they go to the minor leagues and play like we think they can play — and if there’s a need — I think both those guys can be very impactful.”