Cubs catcher Willson Contreras had more words for teammates on Sunday — and vice-versa — after publicly ripping the team’s effort Saturday in a 6-0 loss to the Cardinals. This time it was kept in-house — where manager David Ross said it belonged in the first place.
Ross also disputed Contreras’ claim that players lacked effort and then conspicuously avoided the question of whether the sixth-year starter is considered a team leader.
Asked if he viewed Contreras as a leader in the clubhouse and how his comments Saturday might impact that role, Ross said: “I think Willson is a big part of our team.”
Ross added: “I think what he said last night needs to be said in-house and not to the media. I think he understands that. I think that’s a good lesson. But I think good is going to come from it, if that makes any sense.”
Not yet it doesn’t.
And regardless of where anybody inside or outside that clubhouse lands on this issues Contreras raised, the catcher offered a glimpse into the growing tension within a group that knows the end is near — through trades this month or free agency two months later — after a six-year run that included one big championship followed by years of falling short of expectations.
They endured a vote of no-confidence from ownership and the front office before the season ever started when payroll-slashing moves robbed their defending division champion of its best pitcher (Yu Darvish), versatile backup catcher (Victor Caratini) and a slugging outfielder (Kyle Schwarber) who ended up an All-Star for another team.
Life perspectives and choices collided over COVID-19 vaccinations as team leaders such as Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward chose not to get vaccinated while Contreras and shortstop Javy Báez took leadership roles on the issue with public-service spots for community vaccination drives — the Cubs winding up among the extreme few teams that failed to reach MLB’s 85-percent threshold required to lift some protocol restrictions.
And after surviving a rough April, they surged into first place with a torrid May and early June — only for the schedule to get tough again, injuries and a shaky rotation costing them games and at one point, Contreras and Rizzo caught on camera in a dugout confrontation in San Francisco.
As they got the All-Star break a day early because of Sunday’s rainout, they’d lost 19 of 25 — including 12 of the last 14 — with the team president on Thursday affirming the obvious: They’re sellers as they head to the July 30 trade deadline.
“I think he was frustrated,” Ross said of Contreras’ comments Saturday, “He’s been around here a long time and been a part of a lot of winning. And it’s the first time really he’s had to go through a little bit of this, different stuff going on.
“And I think he sees things from a different perspective with what he has to deal with behind the plate and playing both sides of that and making sure everybody’s on the same page with what they’re bringing every single day. And he was frustrated with some things. And he was kind of vocal with that to [media]. It was a lesson for him, [that he’ll] probably want to handle that more in-house.”
If nothing else, Ross said the break “is coming at a really good time.”
But despite some of the ensuing and optimistic manager-speak about second-half runs, it’s not going to get any easier on a group of core players who have never experienced selling at the deadline, much less an irrelevant second half of baseball — harder yet on a second-year manager who was a teammate in the high times of 2015 and 16.
In the context of Contreras’ frustration and comments, Ross put a lot of that on his shoulders. And it’s a burden that might only get heavier down the stretch.
“I’ve got to be better for sure,” he said. “The things I’m trying to do here and being the leader of this group, when things don’t work out, I definitely want to be accountable and make sure I can be better.
“Talking to Willson, it wasn’t pointed at me or the staff or anything like that. But I think the family atmosphere and knowing and being with these guys for a long time — he just had some frustrations that he needed to get out,” he said.
“But, for sure, I think wins and losses and having the right culture in there is definitely on me.”