Buster Posey

19 for '19: Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?

19 for '19: Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: Will Willson Contreras fulfill his destiny as the best catcher on the planet?

A dream scenario for Willson Contreras and the Cubs: He puts it all together, stays healthy, garners NL MVP votes and winds up taking over as unquestionably the best catcher in baseball.

A worst-case sceanrio for Contreras and the Cubs: He struggles again while catching a ton of innings and all the talk of his "potential" is retired forever.

Both scenarios are entirely possible for Contreras in 2019. But if you're a betting person, bet on the latter at your own risk...because he's making a strong push for his 2019 to go the way of the former.

The Cubs' enigmatic and energetic young catcher is entering his prime and he has a brand new lease on his career after last season's struggles.

He is his own harshest critic, telling NBC Sports Chicago's Kelly Crull that he slacked off on his routine and fitness last year and believes he didn't deserve to have a good season.

"Everything is easy when you're going well, when you're not thinking too much and hitting homers and doubles with guys in scoring position," he said. "I was too comfortable last year, to be honest. It kills me — I was like way too comfortable. I talked to my family and my wife about this.

"I didn't do my best on my routine because the season before, I hit 21 homers and I told myself, 'OK, if you hit 21 homers one year, you can do it again next year.' But it doesn't work like that.

"This game taught me that you have to keep working hard like you did the last year and don't get too comfortable because you're gonna fail and fail and fail. We learn and we move on."

Contreras' power issues were magnified in the second half of last year (only 11 extra-base hits and 3 homers in 56 games), but he actually wasn't tearing the cover off the ball like he's capable of before the All-Star Break, either.

Now that he's learned a lesson the hard way and insists he's no longer complacent, what is Contreras capable of offensively?

Well, even with the power issues in the first half of last year, Contreras was still the NL starter in the All-Star Game...where he homered off Chris Sale in his first at-bat. Going into that game, the Cubs backstop had a career .278/.359/.480 slash line, which is good for an .839 OPS.

To put that in perspective, Buster Posey has a career OPS of .840 and Gary Sanchez is at .847 through his four years in The Show. During his career year in 2018, J.T. Realmuto posted an .825 OPS.

Of course, offense isn't the only area a catcher is judged on. 

Contreras rates poorly in several defensive metrics — namely pitch framing. He has an absolute cannon for an arm which certainly helps keep the run game in check, but he undoubtedly has room to grow as a receiver and game-caller.

Cubs pitchers — especially Jon Lester — have done nothing but rave about his abilities as a battery mate and he's been working with catching coordinator Mike Borzello to improve in every area. 

It's also worth pointing out that Contreras is a converted catcher and only registered 226 starts at the position in the minor leagues. Plus, every inning he's caught in the major leagues has been for a contending team where every pitch and every inning mattered.

Contreras certainly has the potential to take his crown as the unquestioned best catcher on the planet. But will he put up the production to match?

Only time will tell...

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Giants

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USA TODAY

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Giants

The National League looks as strong as ever, with as many as 12 of the 15 teams planning to contend in 2019.

The Cubs had a quiet winter, transactionally speaking, but almost every other team in the NL bolster their roster this offseason. 

But expectations haven't changed at the corner of Clark and Addison. After a disappointing finish to 2018, Kris Bryant and Co. once again have their sights set on another World Series.

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

2018 record: 73-89, 4th in NL West

Offseason additions: Gerardo Parra, Drew Pomeranz, Rene Rivera, Stephen Vogt, Yangervis Solarte, Cameron Maybin, Drew Ferguson, Travis Bergen, Pat Venditte

Offseason departures: Hunter Pence, Hunter Strickland, Nick Hundley, Gregor Blanco

X-factor: Dereck Rodriguez

You could easily make the case that Madison Bumgarner should be the X-factor for the Giants in 2019, given that if he pitches like an ace, he could either draw a huge return in a deal before the trade deadline or stay in town and possibly help the team emerge as a surprise contender in his final season by the bay.

But Rodriguez also has the potential to impact the present and future of this franchise. Pudge's son exploded onto the scene with a surprising rookie season (6-4, 2.81 ERA, 1.13 WHIP) last year and certainly showed flashes of ace-level. Can he duplicate it and build off those numbers in 2019 or will he take a step back and that will go down as his flash-in-the-pan season?

Rodriguez already turns 27 in June, but if his breakout was legit, the Giants have a staple in their rotation for the next six seasons. And that might be the best they can hope to accomplish in 2019 — find pieces for the future amid an aging core.

Projected lineup

1. Steven Duggar - CF
2. Joe Panik - 2B
3. Buster Posey - C
4. Brandon Belt - 1B
5. Evan Longoria - 3B
6. Brandon Crawford - SS
7. Mac Williamson - LF
8. Gerardo Parra - RF

Projected rotation

1. Madison Bumgarner
2. Jeff Samardzija
3. Dereck Rodriguez
4. Derek Holland
5. Drew Pomeranz

Outlook

This does not have the makings of a playoff team.

The Giants' offseason was only notable because of the moves they did not make: They could not land Bryce Harper after swooping in at the 11th hour and they did not trade away Bumgarner.

It's interesting that they were even engaged in talks with Harper. His addition would've been huge for the roster, but would they even be in the mix for October even with the slugger holding down the middle of the order? And if they had the payroll to climb above $300 million for one player, why didn't they use any of it to bolster any other weaknesses on the roster?

The Giants still have a championship core in Bumgarner, Posey, Belt and Crawford, but they're all either entering their mid-30s or in the final year of their deal.

And there's not much else to get excited about. Johnny Cueto had Tommy John surgery and isn't expected to pitch in 2019, Longoria is still a good fielder but wasn't even a league-average hitter a season ago and the starting outfield of Williamson-Duggar-Parra may well be the worst trio in the game.

The bullpen is a potential saving grace, as they return all five of their top arms (Will Smith, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Sam Dyson, Reyes Moronta).

Who knows, maybe everything breaks right for the Giants in 2019 — Posey rejoins the MVP race, Longoria returns as an above-average hitter, Bumgarner regains ace status, Samardzija and Pomeranz finally put it all together, Panik enjoys a breakout season, every player stays healthy, Duggar becomes a star, and on and on.

Hey, it *could* happen. But it probably will not. This is one of only three teams in the NL that I don't expect to be a part of the playoff race in 2019.

Prediction: 5th in NL West

All 2019 previews & predictions

San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Dodgers
Miami Marlins
New York Mets
Atlanta Braves
Philadelphia Phillies
Washington Nationals
Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates
Milwaukee Brewers
St. Louis Cardinals

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The Giants may be emerging as the new lead horse in Bryce Harper Sweepstakes

The Giants may be emerging as the new lead horse in Bryce Harper Sweepstakes

 

Smash Mouth may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but they’re certainly not putting their fingers and thumbs in the shape of an “L” on their foreheads.

Not yet, anyways.

The Bryce Harper Sweepstakes might be reaching a fever pitch, with the report Wednesday from NBC Sports Bay Area’s Alex Pavlovic that the San Francisco Giants offered the superstar a 10-year deal.

That falls right in line with what Smash Mouth — yes, *that* Smash Mouth — tweeted from their official account Tuesday afternoon:

There’s no indication yet from Pavlovic or elsewhere how much the Giants are offering over that 10-year span, but it’s fair to assume it would be beyond the $300 million Manny Machado got last week. It’s been suggested often this winter that Harper and his superagent Scott Boras would like to top the overall value of Machado’s contract.

Harper reportedly turned down a 10-year, $300 million offer from the Washington Nationals before the end of the 2018 regular season.

The Giants have been one of the latest arrivals to the Harper Sweepstakes and it was tough to discern how interested they’d be in inking the slugger to a long-term deal.

But now they may well be the favorites in landing Harper and placing him some 500 miles north of Machado and the Padres.

The Giants woke up Wednesday morning as one of only 3 teams in the National League that didn’t appear to be “going for it” in the near future, but obviously adding Harper to the mix would change those expectations in the snap of a finger (or the swipe of a pen).

Right now, the Giants “boast” an outfield of Steve Duggar, Mac Williamson and Gerardo Parra with Drew Ferguson and Cameron Maybin also working into the picture.

Adding Harper would be a huge get for the lineup, pairing him with Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Evan Longoria and Brandon Crawford. That may not spell a playoff team for 2019 — especially with Johnny Cueto set to miss the entire year and serious pitching questions beyond that — but it certainly would add further mud to the NL waters.

That’s not good news for a Cubs team with no money coming off a very quiet winter, but it’s still probably better than Harper going to a team like the Dodgers or Nationals — two squads that are set to be contenders even without his services.

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