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.”
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.”