PHILADELPHIA – The obsession with what’s next means Cubs fans and the Chicago media are already wondering about Willson Contreras’ ETA now that Albert Almora Jr. has left Triple-A Iowa and made his big-league debut.
Contreras is the catcher of the future for an organization now carrying three catchers – Miguel Montero, David Ross and Tim Federowicz – at the major-league level. There are obvious questions about Contreras catching Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta’s electric stuff, meshing with John Lackey’s unique personality and handling the coaching staff’s intricate game-planning system.
But when Contreras is hitting like this at Iowa – .343 average with nine homers, 39 RBI and a 1.026 OPS through 48 games – people start to wonder when he will be in The Show. And if Contreras could essentially become the big bat added before the trade deadline, the way Kyle Schwarber burst onto the scene last year as a rough-around-the-edges catcher.
“You’ll see (Contreras) here at some point – I’m certain of that,” manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park. “I just don’t know when. But he’s doing everything properly. I’m hearing a lot about his defense, because you think he’s going to hit.
“The big thing with us is you can see our pitching staff’s doing so well. How much do our catchers have to do with that? We have some veteran catchers back there now that can really help pitchers.
“So just make sure that all the boxes are checked properly and then you bring him up when you think it’s the right time. But I’ve heard nothing but glowing reports about him.”
Yes, the Cubs lead the big leagues in rotation ERA (2.34) by a wide margin – with the well-publicized New York Mets second at 3.20 – but their catchers are also hitting .211 combined with a .679 OPS that’s about average across the majors.
Still, the Cubs are willing to sacrifice offense for defense. Almora, 22, made his first big-league start on Wednesday afternoon, batting sixth and playing left field against the Philadelphia Phillies. Contreras, 24, would also be entering what’s become a great atmosphere for young players, with the attention and pressure spread out across the clubhouse and a manager who helps create a sense of belief.
“You can’t expect a finished product,” Maddon said. “You got to expect some things to pop that you’re just going to have to address and work on. But I’m fine with that. That’s part of (the job).
“Understand that they’re also going to make mistakes, just like veterans do. I hate the term ‘rookie mistake’ – I’ve seen a lot of veterans make the same mistakes. I’ve never really uttered those words.
“With young guys, I’m talking about the nuance of the game, understanding little things, whether it’s base-running stuff, whether it’s making sure you’re throwing to the right base, working an at-bat (when) your pitcher just had a long inning and you go out there and you make a first-pitch out. Those are the kind of things you want to make sure that the guy is savvy about.
“A Major League Baseball game is really chock full of nuance that is not really played up as much in the minor leagues.”
That would be a final piece to the education of Contreras, who should at least get acclimated for a bigger role in 2017, if not become this year’s Schwarber. The Cubs don’t have to force it now – unless another injury happens – but the noise around Contreras is only going to get louder.
“I’m patient because I know who I am and I’m having a good season here, so sooner or later they have do something,” Contreras recently told The Des Moines Register. “As soon as I get there, I will never be back.”