Cubs know Willson Contreras still needs time to develop

Cubs know Willson Contreras still needs time to develop

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.”

Cubs to reportedly conduct second interview with Joe Espada for managerial opening

Cubs to reportedly conduct second interview with Joe Espada for managerial opening

Astros bench coach Joe Espada has two days off before Houston hosts Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday, but it looks like some of that time will be spent in Chicago.

According to multiple reports, the Cubs will interview Espada a second time for their managerial opening. MLB Network's Jon Heyman reports that the interview is happening on Sunday.

Espada is one of the more sought after managerial candidates this offseason, as he's spent the last six seasons with two of baseball's leading franchises. The 44-year-old has been Astros bench coach since 2018, and prior to that, he spent four seasons with the Yankees — 2014 as a front office assistant, 2015-17 as third base coach.

David Ross was the presumed favorite for the Cubs' opening, when the process got underway. However, by landing a second interview, Espada has clearly given the team something to think about. In fact, NBC Sports Chicago's David Kaplan reported on Thursday the Cubs came away "exceptionally impressed" from Espada's first interview on Monday. 

MLB prefers teams not to make managerial announcements during the World Series. So, it might be a few more weeks before the Cubs announce their decision, unless they do so on Sunday or Monday.

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As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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