Contreras has come a long way as a catcher
Prospect could earn a spot on big league roster with Cubs in 2016
MESA, Ariz. -- The best catcher in the Cubs organization didn't start catching until he was bored one day. Willson Contreras was taking part in instructional league activities in the Dominican Republic and saw some catcher's gear on the floor. He put it on, and went down to the bullpen "just for fun."
Oneri Fleita, who was the Cubs' player development director at the time, saw Contreras in the pads and mask. Was the third baseman serious about making a switch?
"I said, 'If you want me to play as a catcher, I'll be a catcher,'" Contreras said. "I said, 'I'll play wherever you want. I can play anywhere.' [Fleita] said, 'Get ready for the next Spring Training because you'll be a catcher.'"
In 2012, Contreras made the conversion, and he hasn't looked back. The 23-year-old, ranked 10th among the Cubs' top prospects by MLBPipeline.com, is currently playing in the Arizona Fall League with the Mesa Solar Sox. He was named to the Fall Stars Game, to be played Saturday (7 p.m. CT on MLB Network and MLB.com).
"The transformation has been fun to watch," said Mesa manager Mark Johnson, who was Contreras' skipper in 2011 and '12 at Class A Boise. "He's an interesting guy with incredible tools."
Contreras was named the Cubs' Minor League Player of the Year this season after batting .333 with eight home runs, 34 doubles, four triples and 75 RBIs at Double-A Tennessee. He made his first trip to a Major League ballpark in September when he was presented the award at Wrigley Field.
"That was an amazing experience," Contreras said last week prior to an AFL game in Mesa. "My first thought was, 'I don't want to be back in the Minor Leagues.' I said that to [Cubs chairman] Tom Ricketts, I said to all the bosses, 'I don't want to go back to the Minor Leagues.' They said, 'Keep working and doing what you're doing.'"
That's one of the reasons Contreras is participating in the AFL.
"He's the best player on the field," Johnson said. "He always has been the best player on the field. It's just been a matter of him harnessing it and playing under control. That's where he's [progressed] the most, is being able to slow the game down and control his actions and thoughts and minimize his movements.
"He's always been super strong, super fast as far as quick twitch muscles and his swing, throwing," Johnson said. "He's off the charts when it comes to physical attributes. The first thing I noticed was his calmness and maturity. He still has a way to go as far as running a staff and calling a game. That takes years and years."
Contreras' teammates have seen the progress as well. Pitcher Pierce Johnson was Contreras' teammate in 2013 at Class A Kane County and again this season at Tennessee.
"He is night and day better than when I first threw to him," said Johnson, who also is on the Solar Sox roster. "When I threw to him in Kane County, obviously his arm stands out and his power with the bat. He was a good player for us back then. Now, he's excellent and he's fun to watch. Every time he comes up to the plate, he's got that power and that persona. He can do really well up there [in the big leagues]."
The biggest improvement Mark Johnson has seen is Contreras' throwing mechanics.
"Over time, he's shortened and minimized his movements," said Johnson, who managed the Cubs' Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach team this season. "He's had the strength and hand speed and bat speed. His body always kind of got in his way because he tried to do too much. That's Willson, and that's why you love him because he tries so hard and wants to do so well and wants to play so hard all the time. You always want guys like that on your team."
Contreras enjoys the responsibilities that come with being a catcher.
"I'm in charge of the game calling, I have to work with the pitchers," Contreras said. "I love being a catcher. I have to be focused every game, every at-bat, every pitch."
As eager as Contreras is to get to the big leagues, there are a couple obstacles. Both Miguel Montero and David Ross are under contract for 2016 with the Cubs, and Kyle Schwarber will continue to work on his catching skills, although he may wind up with more at-bats in the outfield. Schwarber and Contreras played together at the beginning of this season at Tennessee.
"He'd play two [games] and I'd play one," Contreras said of Schwarber. "When he went up to the big leagues, I was so happy for him because he's a good guy, a good person."
Contreras is just waiting for his moment. He got a boost of confidence from Montero when the veteran joined Tennessee in early August on a rehab assignment. Montero took Contreras and some of the other Latin players to lunch. Naturally, the players wanted to know what they needed to do to get to the big leagues.
"[Montero] said everything is mental," Contreras said. "Baseball is the same everywhere. You just have to be smart and get focused every game. You have to work with the pitchers."
Montero inspired Contreras. He went 12-for-20 (.600) during the five games the veteran was with Tennessee.
"Somehow, he helped with my confidence, helped with my mind," Contreras said. "[Montero] said, 'Have fun with the game and see what happens.'"
The reality is, Contreras is trying to take Montero's job.
"He knows that," Contreras said. "He said, 'I'll be happy if you take my job. I want to be your backup catcher to help you.'
"When I went to Chicago to get the award, I was talking to Tom Ricketts, and [Montero] came up and said, 'Hey, I don't want to blame myself if he takes my job but you have to keep me as a backup because I want to help him.'"
All Contreras needs is experience. Once the AFL season ends Nov. 19, he'll return to Venezuela and hopes to play for a Winter League team there.
"He's got a plus bat, he's a plus defender," Mark Johnson said. "He just needs more games behind the plate to understand the dynamics of calling a game and running a staff."
Most important, Contreras wants to catch.
"He's hungry," Mark Johnson said. "He's always been hungry, but now he understands he needs that extra edge, whatever that is. He's getting it. It's cool to see."