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.”