It’s looking more and more as though Kyle Schwarber’s future behind the plate will be limited to the occasional spot start or even pipe dream. Not only is the rising sophomore spending time at The Performance Compound in Tampa, FL working to drop the freshman 15 while becoming more flexible, agile, and explosive for his role in the outfield, but he’s simultaneously being crowded out of his old position. And I’m not necessarily talking about the aging pair of Miguel Montero and David Ross either. After a breakout year in Tennessee that saw him rise to the #1 spot in MLB Pipeline’s rankings for catcher prospects, Willson Contreras appears to be the real deal.
“Like Schwarber,” the report said, “Contreras stands out most with his offensive production. He entered last season with a career .689 OPS, but he led the Double-A Southern League in batting (.333) and extra-base hits (46), a tribute to his improved plate discipline and strength. Contreras is a quality hitter with solid raw power that’s starting to show up more in game production.
“Unlike Schwarber, Contreras has a good chance of sticking at catcher. Signed for $850,000 out of Venezuela as a third baseman in 2009, he moved behind the plate in 2012. Contreras is quicker and more athletic than most backstops [all emphasis mine], and he owns a strong arm and has made progress with his receiving.”
Listen, I love Schwarber as much as or more than the next guy, but it sure sounds as though Contreras has got a leg up on him when it comes to filling the role that will be at least partially vacated after the 2016 season. With Ross likely to retire and Montero unlikely to be worth the $14 million he’ll be owed in 2017, the Cubs are going to need a replacement. While I think War Bear has the ability and desire to eventually catch at the Major League level, the one thing he doesn’t have enough of is time and experience.
Given the complexities involved in being even a passable backstop at the highest echelon of the game, it takes a lot more than just crouching back there once a week and working with catching instructor Mike Borzello on the side. Constructed as it is right now, however, that’s really all the Cubs roster affords Schwarber in terms of growth. Contreras, on the other hand, is able to receive intense, full-time tutelage every day. The same situation that forced Scwharber into left allows the Cubs to keep his former Smokies teammate in the minors to hone his craft.
That’s the really crazy thing in all this, the fact that those two guys were playing together at the start of the 2015 season. It’s entirely possible that they’ll be reunited by the start of the 2017 season, if not late in 2016 when rosters expand. If Contreras continues to show out in Iowa this season, I can see the Cubs wanting to have him acclimate to The Show while learning from the grizzled vets prior to possibly taking over for them. I say possibly because I’m rethinking my phrasing when it comes to Miggy’s future.
While age is sure to have a deleterious effect on his skills, the Cubs won’t owe Montero any more money in ’17 than they’ll pay him this year. And since David Ross’s $2.5 million will come off the books after this season, the team doesn’t necessarily need to pare payroll by throwing a rookie into the deep end. In fact, I can easily envision a scenario in which an aging Montero tutors Contreras while the latter continues to usurp more playing time as progress and necessity dictate. It’s like a dad taking the training wheels off of his kid’s bike and holding onto the seat while the youngster pumps his legs through those first tentative revolutions before finding his balance and taking off down the street.
And the best part? The Cubs’ success is by no means predicated on Contreras’ ascension. If the kid lives up to the lofty ranking and the potential evident in both his bat and athleticism, it’s gravy. But if he doesn’t quite pan out, it’s not the soul-crushing failure with which Cubs fans have become agonizingly familiar from past experience. Necessity may breed ingenuity, but it also breeds hasty decisions and false expectations. But by their success, the big names already making waves in Chicago have removed the need for their former fellow prospects to come up too quickly. And while that renders many of those prospects still working through the system irrelevant to the masses of Cubs fandom, it also makes it easier for those players to find success on their own terms.
The pleasure, as Joe Maddon might say, has exceeded the pressure. Willson Contreras may well be the next big thing as far as the Cubs are concerned, but the organization can and will take its time with him. And that, my friends, is a very good thing. You think this team is fun to watch now? Just think about what it’ll be like if they add a young, athletic catcher to the mix.