In what is becoming an annual mid-June rite, the Cubs have called up another hot-hitting minor-league catcher. Kyle Schwarber joined the parent club on June 16, 2015 and made his first appearance as a defensive replacement for a Miguel Montero after the veteran had gotten kicked out of a game. War Bear’s first start came the following day in Cleveland as a DH. Willson Contreras was called up on June 16, 2016 and will be with the Cubs when they open a series against the Pirates at Wrigley on June 17.
The similarities probably won’t end there, either, as it seems likely that Joe Maddon will need to move his newest weapon around the diamond a little bit in order to get him the at-bats he deserves. While Contreras’s future is behind the plate, the Cubs didn’t make this move to have him ride the pine and pick up framing skills through osmosis. I think they learned a little something from the way they handled Schwarber’s promotions and we’re probably going to see that in the way they handle Contreras.
If you recall, Schwarber’s first stint with the Cubs was just as a DH for a six-game AL swing. Yeah, he got an inning in at catcher, but that was more of an emergency thing. It wasn’t until 10 games into his second go-round in July that he logged any time in the outfield, and that was only after starting the game behind the plate. He continued to spend a majority of his time on the field in a crouch, making seven of his next nine starts at catcher.
While his call-up and playing time was predicated on a Miguel Montero DL stint, it quickly became evident that the Cubs needed War Bear’s club in the lineup more often than his role as a backup catcher would allow. Hence, he became the mostly-everyday left fielder from August 6 through the end of the playoffs.
Even if Maddon wants to give his aging duo of Miggy Montero and David Ross plenty of rest, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Contreras is catching more than a couple days a week. Ross is going to continue to catch Jon Lester and Montero will be back there for Jake Arrieta starts. I could see Contreras acting as Jason Hammel’s caddy, which was the plan for Schwarber prior to his injury.
For what it’s worth, I wrote back before the start of the season that I thought Maddon would pair Schwarber with Lackey due to the latter’s strike-throwing tendencies. Hendricks is a bit of a nibbler, so it’s nice to have a experienced framer giving him a little more cushion. Of course, you also have to consider Lackey’s crusty, er, competitive personality and how well a rookie is going to work with him in that regard. Regardless of how the batteries line up, there’s more to this than just how they’ll find time for Contreras behind the plate.
Given his status as baseball’s top catching prospect, it’s easy to forget that Contreras didn’t start out as a backstop. In fact, he’s only been catching full-time for the last few seasons. He began his professional career as a third baseman and has spent some time at first and at both corner outfield spots too. Though he hasn’t played in the outfield since logging a single inning in left during a Venezuelan Winter League game in 2015, Contreras is athletic enough to make the transition with relative ease.
You may think it strange that I’m talking about finding room for him in an outfield that’s already crowded, but the Cubs aren’t done making moves. There are some difficult decisions to be made once Tommy La Stella and Jorge Soler come off the DL, which may mean Albert Almora returning to Iowa, among other things. And what of Chris Coghlan? That kind of speculation can take us down all kinds of rabbit trails though, so let’s get back to Contreras (who bats right, just in case you were wondering).
While calling him up when they did was a surprising move, to say the least, it’s also a telling one. The Cubs are saying that they think Contreras is worth more to the team right now than he would be as a slightly more polished catcher later in the season. He can’t grow any more as a hitter in AAA and the offensive production coming from the three-headed monster of Rossy/Miggy/Fed wasn’t really quieting the noise Contreras was making with his bat in Des Moines.
Just as Schwarber came up and forced the Cubs to find room for him on the roster last year, Contreras appears ready to do more of the same. I think we’ll see him eased in early on, getting some time behind the plate and then maybe picking up some innings at the corner spots. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Joe Maddon during his time in Chicago, it’s that he’s not afraid to do whatever he has to in order to field the best possible lineup.
After learning from the Schwarber experiment last year, that probably means being a little less tentative with Contreras, who’s also almost two years older than War Bear was when he debuted. Make no mistake, though, playing all over the place is not a sign that Contreras won’t be the full-time catcher pretty soon or that he won’t be getting all kinds of work behind the plate when he’s not in uniform.
Contreras will absolutely be soaking up all he can from whichever veteran isn’t starting on a given day and he’ll no doubt be working a lot with catching instructor Mike Borzello. Heading into this season, and as recently as this morning, I had theorized that we’d see Contreras in AAA until rosters expanded in September. Then he’d come up for a taste of the Bigs and would enter into an internship of sorts with Miggy next season.
The young catcher’s absolute pummeling of minor league pitching, combined with a dearth of hitting from the elder statesmen, sped the timeline a little bit. There’s also a distinct possibility that the Cubs feel pretty good about Contreras’s development as a catcher and about his ability to grow more at the MLB level than he could in Iowa, which means we may see him usurp more and more time from the vets as the summer wears on. Fans who haven’t seen him play yet are going to be blown away by the athletic ability and raw talent Contreras brings to the table, particularly when compared to the guys they’re used to seeing behind the plate.
While the manner in which he’s deployed remains to be seen, the simple fact is that Willson Contreras makes the Cubs a better team. Now it’s up to Joe Maddon and the front office to make all the pieces fit together. This is heady stuff, folks, and I can’t wait to see it play out.