Cubs

Would Cubs see Willson Contreras as next man up at catcher?

Would Cubs see Willson Contreras as next man up at catcher?

The Cubs once had the luxury of not rushing Willson Contreras. With Miguel Montero, David Ross and Kyle Schwarber all deserving time behind the plate, the Cubs could give their catcher of the future a bridge year at Triple-A Iowa to prepare him for high-stress situations and the information overload.    

That major-league depth began to disappear by Game 3, once Schwarber crashed into Dexter Fowler in a season-ending outfield collision that tore the ACL and LCL in his left knee.

Now Montero – who will turn 33 this summer and has already caught almost 8,000 innings in The Show – is dealing with a stiff back that hasn’t responded well to the cold Chicago weather.      

With Montero scratched from Tuesday’s lineup and said to be available off the bench – at least before the rain washed out Wednesday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field – the Cubs will have to lean even harder on Grandpa Rossy. 

Would Contreras be the next man up?

“It depends on what happens,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You would have to look at a short-term situation or a long-term situation regarding who you may want to bring up, just based on roles.”

Super-utility guy Javier Baez – who actually gained some catching experience in high school while developing into a first-round pick – is the emergency in-game option. Ross – who is 39 years old and planning to retire after this season – is already locked in as Jon Lester’s personal catcher. 

“I don’t want to beat him up,” Maddon said. “That would be a concern.”

The Cubs do have some veteran Triple-A insurance with Tim Federowicz, who played parts of four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers between 2011 and 2014. But Contreras is already on the 40-man roster and would also be just a phone call away at Iowa. 

The big break might not come immediately with an injury, since Montero doesn’t see this as a disabled-list situation, but Contreras looks like a potential second-half energy boost, the same way Schwarber gave the team shots of adrenaline during last year’s playoff run. 
 
Contreras, who won a Southern League batting title last season, is hitting .375 through his first 14 games with Iowa and has the big arm that can shut down a running game.  

The questions revolve around how Contreras, who will turn 24 in May, can handle a pitching staff that has a 2.58 overall ERA, 16 quality starts through 20 games and all these different personalities.

But the Cubs are succession planning with Montero only signed through 2017 ($14 million guaranteed next season), Schwarber facing an arduous rehab process and Contreras emerging as MLB.com’s top catching prospect. 

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”