How Willson Contreras earned respect in Cubs clubhouse and has even more room to grow

How Willson Contreras earned respect in Cubs clubhouse and has even more room to grow

The overall tone of the coverage in spring training slanted more toward who Willson Contreras wasn’t — David Ross — and how the Cubs catcher would work with Jon Lester in particular and a veteran pitching staff with some quirky personalities.

When even Ross — who did “Good Morning America” on Wednesday to promote “Dancing with the Stars” and his new book — would admit Contreras is a more naturally gifted player. Grandpa laughed along with Lester saying “it’s about time we got an offensive catcher,” and John Lackey telling reporters “we got rid of Rossy” as a reason why the 2017 Cubs should be better on paper than the team that ended the 108-year drought.

One-fifth of the schedule has shown that it won’t be quite that easy, the Cubs hovering around .500, not running away with the National League Central and probably getting tired of the comparisons to last year. But the relative struggles have underlined what made 2016 so unique beyond the historical significance.

As a rookie catcher, Contreras delivered the game-tying, two-run, pinch-hit single that helped erase the possibility of facing Johnny Cueto, Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants in an elimination game. Contreras homered off Clayton Kershaw the night the Cubs beat the Los Angeles Dodgers for their first NL pennant in 71 years. Contreras notched an RBI double off another Cy Young Award winner (Corey Kluber) in a World Series Game 7.

Contreras, who turns 25 this weekend, was born in the same year as Kris Bryant and is older than Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr.

“They’re gonna get better, man,” manager Joe Maddon said. “(Anthony) Rizzo’s gonna get better. KB’s gonna get better. They’re all gonna get better. They’re really novices in this game. To do what we did last year with the lack of experience — I’ve said it 1,000 times — it’s pretty incredible what our guys have been able to do.

“Just keep putting them out there, keep their heads screwed on properly, keep them well and they’re going to keep getting better. That’s the point where they really feel like they belong in the major leagues. And when they get to that point, then you actually see how good a player can be.

“You get young guys that will be teetering between survival and belonging, and Willson’s just dripping with self-confidence. That’s part of his allure, too.

“That’s why he runs out and has meetings with John Lackey on the mound. Most young catchers aren’t going to do that. They’re going to avoid John Lackey at all costs.”

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Contreras followed the game plan against the Colorado Rockies during Tuesday night’s win, when Lackey became the second visiting pitcher ever to put up seven scoreless innings and 10 strikeouts at Coors Field. (Pedro Martinez did it with a complete-game shutout for the Montreal Expos in 1997.)

“He’s a baseball guy,” Lackey said. “He wants to get into the film. He wants to learn the scouting reports. It’s fun to work with a young guy that really is all-in. He’s obviously very talented.”

New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi — a one-time All-Star catcher for the Cubs who lasted 15 seasons in the big leagues — watched Contreras catch all 18 innings as Sunday night turned into Monday morning at Wrigley Field and came away with this impression:

“That’s the most energetic catcher I’ve ever seen play 18 innings,” Girardi said. “I give that kid a lot of credit. He’s blocking balls, he’s all over, smiling, playing his rear end off.”

With Contreras — who didn’t reach the Double-A level until his seventh season in professional baseball after signing with the Cubs as a teenager out of Venezuela — it’s always been about channeling that emotion in the right direction.

But the Contreras who flips his bat, pounds his chest and plays with so much passion on the field comes across differently in the clubhouse, rarely drawing attention to himself and following his routine with a sense of purpose.

“I’m kind of a quiet guy,” Contreras said. “I respect everybody’s space. And the most important thing is that I care about them. I care about winning. And I care about learning something different every single day.

“Once I go out there, I just forget about everything. I even forget about my family, because I know that I have to win this ballgame.

“I just care about my pitchers. I just want them to feel comfortable with me, and try to figure out how to approach them, how to talk to them.”

As the Cubs head toward this weekend’s showdown against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, Contreras is hitting .219 with one homer since Opening Night, five errors, a 30-percent caught-stealing rate, a 3.66 catcher ERA and a pickoff move that has minimized Lester’s throwing issues. The learning curve for Contreras — and whether or not he can come close to being the rivalry’s next Yadier Molina — will be a central part of the larger story for the 2017 Cubs.

“He’s made such tremendous strides behind the plate,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said, “knowing every arm that we have, all their stuff, all the lineups we face. (It’s) his ability to break down hitters, know which guys we don’t want to let beat us and develop a game plan accordingly.

“He’s just a tremendous young player who shows up every night.”

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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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:


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