Willson Contreras is here, with a shiny new nameplate adorning his locker in the palatial home clubhouse on Clark and Addison. But the latest Cubs top prospect to be called up won’t be counted on to initially make a significant impact as he slowly wades into big league waters for the first time.
Manager Joe Maddon and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein both talked Friday about easing the 24-year-old into the lineup, with the plan to carry three catchers for the time being. He won’t be an everyday player, and a large part of his time in The Show will be spent learning from Miguel Montero and David Ross, as well as the team’s coaching staff and veteran group of pitchers.
“We think it’s great timing to get Willson some experience up here, get acclimated to the big league level at a time when he doesn’t have to step in and carry the catching load,” Epstein said. “He’s got a great opportunity to learn from David Ross, from Miguel Montero, from Joe and our coaching staff to get a feel for what it’s like, the responsibilities of being a catcher at the big league level. He’s going to get some playing time and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
This isn’t like when the Cubs called up Kris Bryant or Addison Russell and quickly were able to insert them into their starting lineup on a regular basis. Contreras will need plenty of time to learn not only his own pitching staff, but also opposing hitters across the National League. While he’s athletic and has a strong arm, his receiving skills need refinement, too.
Montero was in a similar position as a 23-year-old rookie on the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that won 90 games and reached the National League Championship Series. He was eased into things by then-manager Bob Melvin, primarily catching veteran right-hander Livan Hernandez (Montero caught 32 of Hernandez’s 33 starts). In 2008, Montero caught 20 of Hall of Famer Randy Johnson’s 30 starts, and between his first two full years in the major leagues only played 154 games.
That kind of narrow focus helped Montero, who’s now in Year 11 as a major leaguer, successfully assimilate into the major leagues and take over a starting gig in 2009.
“At that age when you come up, normally it takes two, three years to actually see the guys that you played against them in the minor leagues at the big league level every day, and it’s going to be easier to call the games, recognize different hitters,” Montero said. “And that’s something that it takes a little bit more time because he’s going to come here and he doesn’t really know much about their lineup, their hitters and you really have to study and sometimes that’s kind of the hard part.”
Maddon wasn’t sure if Contreras would wind up specifically catching one pitcher and then filling in elsewhere, as Montero did, or if he’d be deployed in a different manner. The Cubs’ combination of veteran pitchers and catchers has produced an MLB-best 2.66 ERA entering Friday (and second-best 3.36 FIP), and tinkering with that chemistry requires a careful touch.
But the plan has always been to get Contreras to Wrigley Field sooner rather than later to give him that opportunity to methodically develop as a big league catcher. That was made clear in spring training, during which Contreras began working with Cubs pitchers in earnest.
Things may not go as smoothly with Contreras as they would with Montero or Ross behind the plate, but Maddon said everyone’s on the same page about having to potentially be a little more patient with the team’s catcher of the future.
“That was a big part of our camp this year was to have the veteran pitchers understand what we thought of him and how good we thing he’s going to be, so be more patient,” Maddon said, “because veteran starting pitchers tend to be not patient.
“So let’s get on the same page and really try to help this kid, and they’ve done that. Everybody’s on the same page with this. This is a well thought out program or plot for this particular fellow, and everybody is reading from the same sheet of music right now. We’ll do our best to ease him into this and we have the right coaching staff to do that besides the players themselves.”
While Contreras didn’t think he’d be in The Show this quickly, he did take a proactive approach to his future call-up by watching Cubs games while with Triple-A Iowa. He tried to put himself behind the plate while watching guys like Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester to figure out their tendencies and how Montero and Ross called the game.
Contreras’ work ethic was roundly praised by everyone who talked about him Friday, and the Cubs expect him to successfully absorb all the information provided to him over the coming months. But there’s no substitute for actually being behind the plate to call and manage a game. That’s where Contreras’ growth will come, even it’s a slow process.
“My first thought was, ‘Wow, now is my time,’” Contreras said. “Since I got here, I’ve been living my dream.”