Buster Posey

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

If every Major League Baseball player was thrown into a draft pool in a fantasy-type format, Willson Contreras may be the first catcher taken.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs certainly wouldn't take anybody else over "Willy."

The Cubs skipper said as much in late-May, placing Contreras' value above guys like Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez and Yadier Molina based on age, athleticism, arm, blocking, intelligence, energy and offensive prowess.
 
Contreras strikes out more, doesn't hit for as high of an average and doesn't yet have the leadership ability of Posey, but he's also 5 years younger than the Giants catcher. Molina is possibly destined for the Hall of Fame, but he's also 35 and the twilight of his career is emerging. Sanchez is a better hitter with more power currently than Contreras, but a worse fielder.

Remember, Contreras has been in the big leagues for barely 2 years total — the anniversary of his first at-bat came earlier this week:

All that being said, the Cubs are still waiting for Contreras to display that type of complete player in 2018.

He's thrown out 11-of-32 would-be basestealers and the Cubs love the way he's improved behind the plate at calling the game, blocking balls in the dirt and working with the pitcher. They still see some room for improvement with pitch-framing, but that's not suprising given he's only been catching full-time since 2013.

Offensively, Contreras woke up Saturday morning with a .262 batting average and .354 on-base percentage (which are both in line with his career .274/.356 line), but his slugging (.412) is way down compared to his career .472 mark.

He already has 14 doubles (career high in a season was 21 last year) and a career-best 4 triples, but also only 4 homers — 3 of which came in a 2-game stretch against the White Sox on May 11-12.

So where's the power?

"He's just not been hitting the ball as hard," Maddon said. "It's there, he's gonna be fine. Might be just getting a little bit long with his swing. I think that's what I'm seeing more than anything.

"But I have so much faith in him. It was more to the middle of last year that he really took off. That just might be his DNA — slower start, finish fast.

"Without getting hurt last year, I thought he was gonna get his 100 RBIs. So I'm not worried about him. It will come. He's always hit, he can hit, he's strong, he's healthy, he's well, so it's just a patience situation."

The hot streak Maddon is talking about from last season actually began on June 16 and extended to Aug. 9, the date Contreras pulled his hamstring and went to the disabled list for the next month.

In that 45-game span (40 starts) in the middle of 2017, Contreras hit .313/.381/.669 (1.050 OPS) with 16 homers and 45 RBI.

It looked like the 26-year-old catcher may be getting on one of those hot streaks back in mid-May when he clobbered the Marlins, White Sox and Braves pitching staffs to the tune of a .500 average, 1.780 OPS, 3 homers and 11 RBI in a week's worth of action.

But in the month since, Contreras has only 3 extra-base hits and no homers, driving in just 4 runs in 29 games (26 starts) while spending most of his time hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

What's been the difference?

"I think it's honestly just the playing baseball part of the game," Contreras said. "You're gonna go through your ups and downs, but I definitely do feel like I've been putting in the work and about ready to take off to be able to help the team."

Contreras admitted he's been focused more on his work behind the plate this season, trying to manage the pitching staff, consume all the scouting reports and work on calling the game. He's still trying to figure out how to perfectly separate that area of his game with his at-bats.

"With my defense and calling games, that's one way that I'm able to help the team right now," Contreras said. "And as soon as my bat heats up, we're gonna be able to take off even more."

On the latest round of National League All-Star voting, Contreras was behind Posey among catchers. The Cubs backstop said he would be honored to go to Washington D.C. next month, but also understands he needs to show more of what he's capable of at the plate.

"If I go, I go," he said. "Honestly, it's not something that I'm really focusing on right now. ... I do think I've been pretty consistent in terms of my average and on-base percentage and helping create situations and keep the line moving, at least.

"But right now, I know my bat hasn't been super consistent so far. It would be a great opportunity and I'd thank the fans."

As a whole, the Cubs have been hitting fewer home runs this season compared to last year. Under new hitting coach Chili Davis, they're prioritizing contact and using the whole field over power and pulling the ball.

Contreras has a 19.3 percent strikeout rate — the lowest of his brief big-league career — while still holding a 9.6 percent walk rate, in line with his career mark (9.9 percent).

Thanks to improved defense, Contreras still boasts a 1.6 WAR (FanGraphs) despite the low power output to this point. Posey (1.7 WAR) is the only catcher in baseball more valuable to his team.

Just wait until his power shows up.

"He hasn't even taken off yet," Maddon said. "He's gonna really take off. Remember last year how hot he got in the second half? That's gonna happen again. You see the pickoffs, what he does behind the plate, how he controls the running game — he's a different cat.

"And he's gonna keep getting better. He's not even at that level of consistency that I think you're gonna get out of him. Great athlete, runs well, does a lot of things well, but it does not surprise me that he's [second in NL All-Star voting at catcher] with Posey."

Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback

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USA TODAY

Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

San Francisco Giants

2017 record: 64-98, last place in NL West

Offseason additions: Andrew McCutchen, Evan Longoria, Austin Jackson, Gregor Blanco, Tony Watson, Julian Fernandez

Offseason departures: Michael Morse, Matt Cain, Matt Moore, Denard Span, Kyle Crick, Christian Arroyo

X-factor: Brandon Belt

The trades for Longoria and McCutchen are going to get all the attention, but the Giants are sort of acquiring Belt, too. 

Their sweet-swining lefty first baseman only appeared in 104 games in 2017, missing the last few weeks of the season with a bad concussion. When he was on the field, he led the team in both homers (18) and walks (66) despite just 451 plate appearances. 

Belt has turned into one of the most patient hitters in the game and if he is able to stay healthy for a full season, would slot in perfectly in the 2-hole ahead of McCutchen, Longoria and Buster Posey. 

Projected lineup

1. Joe Panik - 2B
2. Brandon Belt - 1B
3. Andrew McCutchen - RF
4. Buster Posey - C
5. Evan Longoria - 3B
6. Hunter Pence - LF
7. Brandon Crawford - SS
8. Austin Jackson - CF

Projected rotation

1. Madison Bumgarner
2. Johnny Cueto
3. Jeff Samardzija
4. Ty Blach
5. Chris Stratton

Outlook

The Giants tied for the worst record in Major League Baseball in 2017, surprising many around the league. Absolutely nothing went right for the team, from a lack of power on the field (Belt missed a third of the season and still led the team in homers), injuries (Bumgarner only made 17 starts) and general ineffectiveness (Mark Melancon).

But the Giants are a team that excels in even years, though the Cubs may have broken that juju by knocking San Fran out of the NLDS in 2016.

Still, between the return to health of key players and some big moves that improved the lineup, this team is primed for a return to form.

Watson is a nice piece at the back end of the bullpen and bet on a rebound from Melancon, who was one of the best late-inning relievers in the game from 2013-16 (1.80 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 147 saves).

Expect more out of the rotation with Bumgarner and Cueto a dynamic 1-2 punch. Cubs fans are familiar with what Samardzija can do if he gets on a role, too.

It seems crazy to pick the Giants to finish higher than the Diamondbacks, but they still have the same core of players from the championship years and have a much-improved roster.

Prediction: Second place in NL West, wild-card team

Complete opposition research

Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies
San Diego Padres
Miami Marlins
Philadelphia Phillies
Atlanta Braves
New York Mets

Definitive proof that Willson Contreras is the best catcher on the planet right now

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USA TODAY

Definitive proof that Willson Contreras is the best catcher on the planet right now

Every Cubs player had a leather vest hanging in their locker Saturday evening, a new addition in advance of the "Easy Rider" themed road trip to the West Coast beginning Monday.

On those vests contained the nickname for each player as the nameplate on the left breast, things like "Schwarbs" for Kyle Schwarber or "Q" for Jose Quintana.

On Willson Contreras' vest, the word "Killer" spread across the left side.

Killer?

Yep, that's Contreras' nickname within the Cubs clubhouse, apparently. It came from Jon Lester and Cubs strength coach Tim Buss (who engineered all the leather vests). 

But why "Killer"? 

"Because of the way I play and the way I look at people on the field," Contreras said, almost bashfully. 

Opposing pitchers would have to agree.

Contreras is on an absolutely surreal run right now, leading baseball with 27 RBI since the All-Star Break (tied with Colorado's Nolan Arenado) after three more runs knocked in during Saturday's 7-4 win over the Nationals.

But Contreras' epic summer actually began earlier than the midseason break, dating back to June 18.

The 25-year-old catcher woke up that mid-June morning hitting .244 with a .708 OPS, five homers and 28 RBI.

Fast forward seven weeks and those numbers now sit at .279, .861, 19 and 68, respectively. He's raised his average 35 points, his OPS 153 points and has driven in 40 runs in 39 games (35 starts) while crushing 14 homers.

"I've been locked in throughout my career in the minor leagues, but not at this level," Contreras said. "Just simplifying things, doing simple things. I think that's the key."

Case in point:

What's even more impressive is Contreras has done this while playing the most demanding position on a daily basis during the hottest time of the year.

"He understands himself; he knows his swing," said veteran backstop Alex Avila, who also homered Saturday. "It doesn't seem like he gets tired. That's nice being that age. 

"He's got tremendous ability and has an idea how to use it. ... As he gets older, he's gonna notice some things about himself and about the league and his baseball IQ will only go up from here."

Even on what is supposed to be an off-day, Cubs manager Joe Maddon couldn't possibly rationalize taking Contreras' bat out of the lineup, so he bumped him from catcher to left field for one afternoon.

Saturday's monster showing now puts Contreras on pace for 28 homers and 101 RBI in only 480 at-bats.

Those numbers are simply staggering for a catcher. No backstop has driven in 100 runs since Victor Martinez in 2004 (101).

Buster Posey drove in 103 runs in 2012, but he also played 29 games at first base that year and only 111 behind the plate.

In fact, Contreras is off to a similar start to his career as Martinez and Miguel Cabrera among Venzuelan-born players:

And Contreras has also done it in a premium spot in the lineup, settling in as the No. 4 hitter now behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo:

He's been a one-man wrecking crew:

Take any stretch of games and his numbers just looks insane:

It's still only the first week of August and any talk of Contreras being the NL MVP is a little overblown right now. 

But with these last seven weeks, he's at least earned a spot in the conversation.