CHICAGO -- The Cubs went through some situational hitting drills as part of their morning workout on Monday. There was a pitching machine set up in front of the mound, fielders around the diamond and baserunners put aboard to work on certain scenarios.
On the final pitch of the session, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras sent a pitch from the machine rocketing over left field and the bleacher seats, and then bouncing off a walkway well beyond the bricks and ivy. Contreras' teammates roared from in and around the first-base dugout. That's one way to get the runners in.
"I prepared myself really well during the offseason," Contreras said after the workout. "I know it was longer than we thought, but I'm looking forward to having a good season, even in 60 games, and looking forward to helping my team to clinch a playoff [spot] and hopefully get to the World Series."
Contreras held court with reporters for 15 minutes via a Zoom conference call, hitting on a wide range of topics. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation.
Contreras has launched a pair of home runs in Summer Camp intrasquad games. He belted a pitch from closer Craig Kimbrel to the center-field bleachers on Tuesday and then sent a Trevor Megill offering bouncing onto Waveland Avenue beyond Wrigley Field's left-field wall on Thursday. The intrasquad games have given the catcher a different perspective on the Cubs' arms, which struck out 26 among 48 batters faced in Sunday night's game.
"I know I've been getting some base hits and different situations," Contreras said Monday. "But our pitching staff is looking really well, especially the bullpen. Yesterday, we had a game where we struck out more than anybody in baseball, so they're looking in great shape. I'm really happy from what I'm seeing so far. They're attacking the zone. They're spinning the ball really well. They're using the whole zone, and that's one thing that makes me happy."
Last season, backup catcher Victor Caratini caught the bulk of Yu Darvish's innings, including partnering up with the righty for his final 14 starts. In that stretch, Darvish posted a 2.95 ERA with 124 strikeouts against seven walks in 88 1/3 innings. Caratini will continue to catch Darvish this year, while Contreras will similarly be paired with Jon Lester. Over the past three years, Contreras has caught 91 percent (484 out of 534 frames) of Lester's innings.
"We talked about it a few days ago," Contreras said. "Victor is catching Darvish, because there's only 60 games and Darvish did really well with Victor last year. That's one thing that I don't mind. I think they did really good and I think I put myself in that situation when I started catching Lester. So it's the same situation. I'm not mad. We are teammates. We want to do really good and we're here to win. That's the most important thing."
Contreras is known for wearing his emotions on his sleeve while on the field. Celebratory shouts of chest thumps are not uncommon after a home run or a big strikeout pitch from one of the Cubs' arms. Contreras was asked how he will adjust to not having fans filling Wrigley Field, given how he feeds off the emotions of his audience.
"It will be hard," Contreras said. "It will be hard, because we're used to playing with fans. But, I will have the same mindset going forward, going into the games. I've got to think that there's fans watching me from home. I know it's different, but they're still watching, they're still looking at us like heroes. And I'll be doing 110 percent to have fun."
Over the past three seasons, Contreras ranks fifth among Major League catchers in innings behind the plate (2,742 2/3). While some injury setbacks have cost him time in that span, the catcher prides himself on staying on the field as much as possible. With the designated hitter in play in 2020, Contreras believes he can be available to play in all 60 games.
"I think that's an advantage for us, because that gets us more at-bats," Contreras said. "I'm always looking forward to be playing every day. I know the DH will save my legs a little bit. I think I'll be playing most of the games and the games that I don't want to be [catching], I think I'll be the DH. So I'll be ready to play every single day."
Contreras raved about the bullpen arms, which accounted for 22 of the strikeouts in Sunday's intrasquad game, and said the starters "all look in great shape, they're all throwing hard." The veteran Lester adopted a conservative throwing program over the past three months, but he logged 2 1/3 innings on Sunday. Contreras was encouraged by what he saw from the lefty, too.
"He did really good. He was commanding all of his pitches," Contreras said. "He threw good four-seams, good cutters. That's the second-best pitch for Lester and he commands the ball really good, in the zone really good. [Sunday], it was only a two-inning outing, but from what I saw, he's looking in good shape and I hope he can go with that shape into the season."