Willson Contreras Doesn’t Need Training Wheels After All

I’ve had the nail teed up for a while now, but Willson Contreras officially drove it home for me with a pair of swift strokes Tuesday night in San Diego. And while that silver spike is really just an allegory for the young catcher’s ascendance, it may also be the last one in Miguel Montero’s coffin.

Back in January, I wrote that Contreras would probably come up in late 2016 to acclimate to the majors and that the Cubs would put him into a timeshare with Montero in 2017. In retrospect, I still feel pretty good about this analogy:

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.

[beautifulquote align=”right”]Contreras is one of those phenoms who splashes onto the scene and takes to the next level like a duck to water.[/beautifulquote]

It made all kinds of sense at the time and still does when you consider the typical learning curve of a catcher, particularly one who hasn’t even been in the role on a full-time basis. I didn’t even stop to consider that perhaps Contreras was one of those phenoms who splashes onto the scene and takes to the next level like a duck to water. Nor did I remember my son’s first two-wheel experience.

After a few turns of the wrench had loosened the bolts, I removed the training wheels from Ryne’s bike and walked with him to the street in front of our house. Placing my hand on the back of his seat, I took a few steps and let go, running alongside him to protect against a fall that never came. A few more pumps from his little legs and he was racing down the street while his old man just cheered and tried to capture the moment on video.

Likewise, Contreras has taken off and has quickly distanced himself from his aged counterparts. After a shaky start, he’s quickly proving that he’s got the receiving chops to work with most of the Cubs rotation. David Ross is still carrying Jon Lester’s clubs for the remainder of the regular season, but you have to wonder whether there’ll be room for him on the postseason roster. Then again, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see them carry Ross over Montero.

Contreras was already paired pretty regularly with Jason Hammel, John Lackey, and Kyle Hendricks, so Miggy’s only guaranteed start behind the plate was when Jake Arrieta took the bump. In the reigning Cy Young’s last two starts, however, the Cubs have gone with the Contrerietta battery. And, oh my, did the young backstop show out in the most recent effort.

After coaxing a leadoff walk (see that recent link for more info on how Cubs pitchers are improving in that regard with Contreras catching) in the bottom of the 1st, Travis Jankowski advanced to second on a groundout. Then, with Yangervis Solarte batting, Jankowski broke for third. Quick as a cat, Contreras leapt from his stance to fire down to Kris Bryant only whisker late. He would file that failure away.

Seeing that Jankowski was getting somewhat liberal with his lead, Contreras pounced toward his prey in a flash that barely registered to the naked eye. It might as well have been the old hidden ball trick, that’s how quickly Bryant was applying the tag to remove the runner from third. Arrieta would go on to strike out Solarte to end the inning.

[beautifulquote align=”right”]His sidearm throw was a blinding scythe that cut down Jankowski, who’s been reaping the whirlwind this series.[/beautifulquote]

If you haven’t already done so, click that last link and watch the play for yourself. It was a pitch-out, Contreras already cheating toward third with his left foot at the midway point of the right-handed batter’s box, but the speed and fluidity with which he rose, stepped, and fired was just…whoa. His sidearm throw was a blinding scythe that cut down Jankowski, who’s been reaping the whirlwind over at third this series.

While WillCo is basically a hurricane in a snow globe behind the plate, a barely contained storm of athleticism and emotion, he’s pretty fun to watch with a bat in his hands too. As is so often the case, the defensive hero got a chance to put in a little more work the following inning. Perhaps taking out some ill will for a questionable call in the past, Contreras laced a hard ground ball (MLB Gameday had it at 102 mph) right up the middle, where it ricocheted off Cowboy Joe West just to the shortstop side of second base.

A few more pumps from his legs and Contreras was racing toward second and sliding in safely with a double even Shawon Dunston would have been proud of. All the while, the old man who normally catches Arrieta just cheered. Maybe he took some video too.

So let’s review: the kid can throw runners out at every base, he can hit, he can run, and he’s getting better at working with his starting pitchers. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that sounds like the description of someone who has supplanted the elder statesman. When you consider that the outfield is pretty much healthy now, leaving less time for Contreras out there, Montero is looking more and more like the odd man out.

Rather than make this about what Miguel Montero is not, though, let’s just keep talking about what Willson Contreras is. Because he’s no longer just the future, he’s also the present. And if he’s able to keep growing and improving at this pace, he’s going to be the gift that keeps on giving.

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