Willson Contreras isn’t walking through that door – at least not yet – but the Cubs still envision their catcher of the future making his mark at some point this season.
It won’t be an immediate impact since the Cubs placed Miguel Montero on the disabled list with lower back tightness before Thursday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, promoting Triple-A Iowa catcher Tim Federowicz to Wrigley Field and having David Ross catch Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta.
That’s the biggest concern now, how Contreras would handle a veteran pitching staff with strong personalities and how much he still has to develop defensively at the Triple-A level. Because last year’s Southern League batting champion is hitting .375 through his first 14 games with Iowa and has all the physical tools that essentially made him an untouchable prospect during trade talks over the winter.
“When I came up to the big leagues my first year, I thought it was going to be easier,” Montero said. “I wondered the same question for myself: ‘Man, how difficult could it be?’ To be honest, I didn’t realize until I had a couple years in the big leagues that it was harder than you think.
“Especially when you have these kinds of pitchers that have been around for a long time. You’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself, trying to call the perfect game for this guy. It’s a lot of weight on your shoulders.
“I guess they’re trying to avoid that. Obviously, the time will come for (Contreras). But the only way to figure it out is to let him catch out here with them. I think that’s the only way to prove (yourself) and learn.
“If you keep saying he’s not ready to catch a major-league staff yet, when is he going to be ready, right?”
Montero didn’t know what triggered this injury – “I guess it’s age, right?” he said with a smile – but he felt something similar with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013 and missed almost a month while recovering from a lower back strain.
Montero – who will turn 33 this summer and earn $14 million in the final guaranteed season of his contract next year – had been awaiting the results of an MRI and mentioned a couple of bulging discs in his back.
The Cubs need short- and long-term insurance policies and succession plans because “Grandpa Rossy” intends to retire after this season and Kyle Schwarber will have to prove he can still catch at the major-league level after undergoing surgery on his left knee to reconstruct his ACL and repair his LCL.
It’s not realistic to think Ross can catch 100-something games at the age of 39. Federowicz looks like a decent backup option after playing parts of four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“We just had to make a choice right there,” manager Joe Maddon said. “‘Fed’ was here for a reason. ‘Fed’ had a great spring training and you’re looking at the overall development of Contreras.
“In your mind’s eye, if you’re putting this whole thing together, with a guy like Willson, you’re probably going to wait until the second half, hopefully, to get him involved here. Or the latter part of the season to really get him here (and) get his feet on the ground.”
It’s probably not fair to drop Contreras into the clubhouse of a World Series contender before his 24th birthday and expect him to take charge of one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.
Remember, the Cubs left Contreras exposed in the Rule 5 draft after the 2014 season and didn’t add him to the 40-man roster, partially because the infielder signed out of Venezuela hadn’t played above the A-ball level at that point.
“You bring in a guy like ‘Fed’ for a specific reason and here the specific reason just popped up,” Maddon said. “He’s a veteran. He understands the major leagues. He understands veteran pitchers.
“There’s a lot of different reasons why you sign ‘Fed’ in the first place – and then you don’t run away from him when the opportunity jumps up there. Contreras’ time will come.”