Cubs manager Joe Maddon isn’t sure when Willson Contreras will make his first major league start after the 24-year-old top prospect was promoted to The Show on Friday. But Contreras caught Jason Hammel’s 60-pitch bullpen session Saturday afternoon, and the veteran right-hander liked what he saw in working with the greenhorn backstop.
“Very, very smart kid,” Hammel said. “I was impressed.”
The Cubs know Contreras will need time to develop and gather in-depth knowledge of his pitching staff and opposing hitters. But Contreras has the advantage of parachuting into a team that has an established pitching plan/process and is full of veterans, from fellow catchers in Miguel Montero and David Ross to starters in Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey and Hammel.
“I think he’s going to have an easy job because we know what we’re doing,” Hammel said. “We’re going to kind of show him the ropes with us. As long as he follows us around, because we’re prepared. We know the gameplan. If we need to change things, obviously we talk to him. We won’t be afraid to talk to him. But I do think he’s not going to be very far behind.”
Still, Maddon preached patience for his veteran starters when they inevitably have to throw to Contreras. And Friday afternoon’s win over the Pittsburgh Pirates was a good example of how a veteran catcher can impact a game.
During Arrieta’s bizarre spate of wildness in the sixth inning, Montero went out to talk to Arrieta — “a great visit,” Maddon said — to help the reigning National League Cy Young winner get back on track. It wasn’t much, but all Montero did was remind Arrieta of things he already knew to help him start finding the strike zone.
“Sometimes you have so many things going through your mind that you forget,” Montero said.
Arrieta wound up striking out David Freese and Matt Joyce — both with three-ball counts — to keep the Pirates off the board in what turned out to be a 6-0 win.
Moments like that are why a catcher’s offensive ability is a secondary concern to Maddon. During his wildly successful tenure with the Tampa Bay Rays, Maddon’s catchers combined to hit .229/.297/.340 (76 wRC+); since he came to Chicago, Cubs catchers have combined for a .224/.323/.384 (91 wRC+) slash line. Both are varying levels of below average.
But Montero and Ross are highly regarded for their ability to handle a pitching staff and execute the gameplan laid out by pitching coach Chris Bosio & Co. And that’s where Maddon sees a catcher’s primary value being built.
“You can never underestimate the importance of what a really good catcher can do for your pitching staff,” Maddon said. “I promise you any catcher worth his weight in salt will tell you that he’d much prefer to catch a winning ballgame than get three knocks. He’d rather get his guy through a really tough moment than get the RBI, winning hit.
“… So when you get that guy, you have a much better chance of winning consistently than the guys out there worried about his hitting and offense. Believe me, pitchers know that and they don’t like that at all when they have a catcher who’s more dedicated to his offense and his defense, they know that and it shows up.”
Contreras’ offensive numbers exploded in 2015 between Double-A Tennessee and the Arizona Fall League, and he continued to bash the ball around Triple-A parks before his promotion to the major leagues on Friday. His bat could be a major asset to the Cubs, but he also understands that his receiving and game-calling abilities are of equal or greater importance.
His locker is right next to Montero’s and is only a few steps away from Ross’, and he plans on picking the respective brains of each veteran.
“I want to take every advantage from them,” Contreras said. “Ask them questions and know they’ll answer.”
Both Montero and Ross seemed genuinely excited for Contreras to get to Clark and Addison, and seemingly everyone around the Cubs clubhouse had positive things to say about Contreras’ work ethic and confidence. Maybe the advice he gives during a game won’t be as good as what the team’s veteran catchers could dole out, but Maddon expects him to have the right attitude about it.
“I don’t know that a young catcher would carry the same amount of cache to the mound with him that a veteran can,” Maddon said. “But I know Willson would go out there with some conviction. You never know how that would play out.”