The Situation: The Cubs aren’t really struggling for production behind the plate. Miguel Montero missed a few weeks and is running the worst BABIP of his career, but David Ross has filled in admirably, and the two have been solid, if unspectacular contributors in the National League’s best offense. Willson Contreras has not been summoned to Chicago out of need, but rather because his talent has forced the issue. The 24-year-old backstop has little to prove in the minor leagues: A solid defender, Contreras is also hitting .350/.439/.591 in Triple-A, with nearly as many walks as strikeouts. It remains to be seen how much he’ll play in the Windy City, but it’s clear that he’s ready for the challenge of the highest level.
Background: The Cubs signed Contreras as a teenage third basemen out of Venezuela in 2009. His subsequent climb through Chicago’s system has been slow and steady: After spending two years in the DSL, he’s played for each of the Cubs non-AZL affiliates, lasting about a year in each city. He started catching in 2012, in Boise, shifting behind the plate full-time the following year. Over the years, he’s grown stronger and more discerning at the plate. He’s always made hard contact, but doubles turned into homers as he matured, and he’s morphed from a free-swinger into a player who knows the zone well, one who is capable of working his share of walks.
Through it all though, Contreras was largely seen as a player who could contribute as a big leaguer, if not in a starring role. But his offensive development spiked last season. Thanks partially to an improved swing path, Contreras’s bat speed increased and he established himself as a future offensive star. Between that, good blocking skills, and a strong arm, Contreras went from a prospective backup catcher to one of the top minor-league backstops in the game.
Scouting Report: At the plate, Contreras has a good eye, a quick bat, and a line-drive stroke that should produce strong batting averages and OBPs. At 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, he has the size to muscle mistakes out of the yard, although his linear bat path isn’t conducive to huge power numbers. He knows the strike zone well, and will work his share of walks, though he is a bit vulnerable on high fastballs just above the letters. His plate discipline has improved throughout his time in the minors, and given his robust showing in Triple-A, he may have more growth yet to come in that part of his game.
Defensively, Contreras is a little bit more raw than the typical blue-chipper behind the plate. As you might expect from a catcher who has only played the position for five years, his receiving skills are a work in progress. He’s not a great framer, and while he can keep his head still and bring a close pitch back to the zone, his instinct is to sweep the ball out of his glove as soon as he gets it. While that’s not ideal technique, it serves him well when a runner is on the move, as he has a quick transfer and a 70 arm. He also blocks well, and is athletic enough to project some improvement in his receiving skills over time. Ultimately, he’s very polished for a hitter, and he has the raw tools to project as an impact performer on both sides of the ball down the line. It’s not hard to envision Contreras as a first-division catcher for years to come.
Immediate Big League Future: The Cubs are planning on rostering three catchers for the foreseeable future. While it stands to reason that Contreras wasn’t called up just to ride the pine, he probably won’t assume a traditional full-time role this season. Ultimately, Joe Maddon will have his hands full managing Contreras alongside a veteran trying to hold on to his job (Montero) and an aging catcher in pursuit of a ring on his way out of the league (Ross). —Brendan Gawlowski
Fantasy Take:Given the lack of quality fantasy options at the catcher, Contreras is talented enough offensively to make an immediate fantasy impact for mixed league owners. There’s no doubt about the legitimacy of his bat, but there are concerns regarding how much playing time he will garner as part of a three-catcher committee, which includes veteran starter Miguel Montero and elder statesman David Ross. Ranked 79th on Bret Sayre’s pre-season Top 101 Fantasy Prospects list, Contreras is unlikely to develop into a fantasy superstar right away. However, given the long-term state of the position offensively, he doesn’t have to hit like Buster Posey to be considered a top-five option in the near future.
The hype surrounding Contreras’ bat is justified. The 24-year-old put it together in Double-A Tennessee, leading the Southern League with a .333 average and .413 on-base percentage that trailed only Max Kepler’s .416 mark last season. He’s carried that momentum over into 2016, ranking among the top five hitters in the Pacific Coast League in average (.353), on-base percentage (.442) and slugging average (.593) to go along with nine home runs in just 240 plate appearances this year. He’s already surpassed his home run total from all of last season (eight) with six of those blasts coming over the course of a 20-game hit streak prior to his call-up. The variable that will ultimately determine his value over the remainder of the season is playing time. Even if he’s limited to a start or two per week, Contreras is worthy of a double-digit FAAB bid in mixed leagues and a substantially larger allocation in NL-only formats. There isn’t another catching prospect on the horizon that can make this type of an impact. —George Bissell
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