Cubs

Cubs prospect Willson Contreras could be next core player to hit Wrigley

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Cubs prospect Willson Contreras could be next core player to hit Wrigley

Willson Contreras isn’t riding the tidal wave of hype that followed Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber.

But the Cubs still see Contreras as their potential catcher of the future, possibly the next core player to crash onto the stage at Wrigley Field as they ramp up their rebuild.

Miguel Montero is guaranteed $28 million across the next two seasons, David Ross is ready to begin his retirement tour and the Cubs haven’t definitively answered the question about Schwarber’s long-term future at catcher.

Contreras is ticketed for Triple-A Iowa this year, not quite ready for the demands of catching at the big-league level and handling a veteran pitching staff and the intricate game-planning system that helped the Cubs become contenders. But his time is coming after winning the Southern League batting title last year and turning into what one team official called an untouchable prospect.

“He’s an incredibly talented, athletic catcher who can really throw, can really block and his receiving is much improved,” team president Theo Epstein said. “He projects to be a frontline catcher in the big leagues for a long time. We’re excited about his development.”

[MORE CUBS: Do Cubs still see catching as part of Kyle Schwarber’s future?]

The Cubs didn’t add Contreras to the 40-man roster last winter, leaving him exposed in the Rule 5 draft. Originally signed as an infielder out of Venezuela in 2009, he hadn’t played above the A-ball level at that point.

Contreras went out and hit .333 with eight homers, 75 RBIs and an .891 OPS in 126 games at Double-A Tennessee, finishing the year as the organization’s No. 2 prospect on Baseball America’s top-10 list.

“He could have got taken by anybody (else),” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president of scouting and player development. “A big transformation for him was playing in Venezuela (last winter and seeing): ‘This is how I need to be.’

“He’s always been a wonderful kid — passionate, big smile, hard worker. But there was more of a maturity level to him. He’s always going to play with passion — that’s just the way he is — but there was a different confidence that came with the maturity from Day 1 in spring training. And he carried that throughout the whole year.”

Contreras, who will turn 24 in May, comes out of the Latin American pipeline the Cubs built during the Jim Hendry administration. Pound for pound, Contreras (6-foot-1, 175 pounds) is said to be one of the strongest players in the entire organization and a more advanced catching prospect than Welington Castillo.

Castillo showed flashes of potential but never quite put it together on the North Side. The Cubs didn’t have much leverage after adding Montero and Ross last winter and sold low on Castillo in a midseason trade with the Seattle Mariners, acquiring a reliever who’s already out of the organization (Yoervis Medina). Castillo got flipped again two weeks later and put up 17 homers and 50 RBIs in 80 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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After guaranteeing more than $275 million to free agents this offseason — and with some uncertainty surrounding their next TV deal and how that impacts the overall financial picture — the Cubs need more breakthrough players like Contreras.

On some level, organizational rankings reflect how much time a front office spends on lobbying those media outlets, but Epstein genuinely believes the Cubs still have a top-tier farm system, even without big names like Bryant, Russell, Soler and Schwarber.

“We’re probably going to end up in that fifth-through-seventh range,” Epstein said. “When you consider the prospects that we’ve graduated, most of our farm system is playing third base for the Cubs, shortstop for the Cubs, right field for the Cubs, left field for the Cubs.

“That’s where those guys went. They didn’t like fall down the rankings because they’re not very good. They’re up in the big leagues. I think we still have a really good farm system.”

The Cubs are holding scouting meetings this week in Chicago, preparing for a draft where they won’t have a first-round selection after that spending spree in free agency and not expecting another top-five pick anytime soon.

“Now that we’re transitioning into this winning mode at the big-league level,” Epstein said, “we will not abandon the pursuit of elite young talent. It’s fundamental to what we do. We’re going to have to have a constant stream of young talent coming up through our system into Wrigley.

“We’re already looking five years ahead, six years ahead (at) what our lineup’s going to look like, different areas of need in the organization.

“We will not abandon young players. That’s what we’re all about.”

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

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USA TODAY

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

WASHINGTON, D.C. — How could someone like Kyle Schwarber play the villain?

The fan favorite who’s always quick with a smile — or an Uncle Sam costume on the Fourth of July — Schwarber doesn’t fit the mold of a loathsome target of boos. But he made quite the heel turn in the minds of Washington Nationals fans Monday night, and of course he knew it was coming.

Schwarber went from getting cheered by the legions in attendance at the Home Run Derby to getting booed when he took on, and eventually lost to, hometown hero Bryce Harper in the final round.

“I was down in the tunnel saying, ‘If we get to the finals, Harp, they’re all going to be against me. I think they’re all going to be against me,’” Schwarber said Monday night. “And then I went out there and got booed after they all got pumped up for me. That’s just the beauty of it, and I was happy for Bryce that he won it in front of the home crowd.”

Harper delivered an incredibly memorable baseball moment Monday night, catching up to Schwarber’s 18 home runs with a ridiculous display of repetitive power to win a Home Run Derby for the ages. The format of this event, revamped a couple years ago, made for a dramatic and hugely entertaining evening. Harper smacked nine homers over the final 47 seconds of the final round to tie Schwarber, then bested him in bonus time. Unsurprisingly, the home crowd was going ballistic for their boy.

But earlier in the night, it was Schwarber getting all the cheers, when he made his own last-second comeback to beat Philadelphia Phillies slugger Rhys Hoskins in the second round. Schwarber was pumping up the crowd, pumping his fists and screaming while putting on a show of his own to catch and pass Hoskins' 20 home runs and advance to the finals.

How quickly the locals forgot.

By the finals — during which Schwarber looked understandably exhausted — the crowd had turned on him, trying to get every advantage for Harper.

“As soon as I got done with that round, I told myself that he had it,” Schwarber said. “I knew that he had the home crowd behind him, and I knew that he was a very prolific power hitter with a great swing. For him to come in and do that and started getting down to the wire, all of a sudden he started racking them up one at a time. You kind of just accept your fate there.”

Perhaps the night could’ve ended differently for Schwarber had he listened more closely to the advice of his teammates, Javy Baez and Willson Contreras, who were quick with Gatorade, a towel and words of encouragement on Monday. Baez hit 16 home runs in his own first-round appearance, though Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Max Muncy knocked him out.

“I was just telling him to slow down,” Baez said. “He was kind of rushing a little bit, that’s why he was jumping to the ball.”

“They were actually giving me really good advice that I didn’t take because I was really dumb-headed,” Schwarber said. “‘Make sure you take some pitches and get the pitch that you want.’ At the end, I felt like I was swinging at everything. I was just running out of gas. I felt like I had to put up as many swings just to try to put a couple out.”

Schwarber was totally content with losing out to Harper’s home-field advantage. Though as his homers flew out deep into the right-field seats Monday night, you couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if Schwarber was instead taking aim at Sheffield Avenue and getting his own home-field advantage from Cubs fans.

The North Side hasn’t played host to the All-Star Game since 1990, so perhaps Schwarber will still be slugging the next time the Friendly Confines are the site of the Home Run Derby.

“That’d be really cool one day if the All-Star Game’s at Wrigley,” Schwarber said, “and to participate in the Derby, that’d be fun.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 36th homer in 1998

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AP

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 36th homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

 

Sosa went down and golfed a pitch out for his 36th homer on July 17, 1998. He smacked Marlins reliever Kirt Ojala's (who??) pitch just over the wall in center field at Pro Player Stadium for a 2-run shot that closed out the Cubs' scoring in a 6-1 victory.

 

The blast accounted for Sosa's 88th and 89th of the season. By comparison, Javy Baez currently leads the Cubs (and the National League) with 72 RBI on July 17, 2018.

 

Steve Trachsel tossed a complete game for the Cubs in the victory that day and Sosa finished with the only extra-base hits for either team (he also had a double).

 

Fun fact: Former Cub Ryan Dempster started the game for the Marlins, but lasted just 4.1 innings to run his season record to 1-4 with a 6.70 ERA.