MESA, Ariz. -- Among hundreds of good decisions that allowed the Cubs to break their World Series drought, one of the best was made when Willson Contreras put on shinguards for the first time.Boredom, more than brilliance, triggered Contreras' move from third base and the outfield to catcher. It happened,
MESA, Ariz. -- Among hundreds of good decisions that allowed the Cubs to break their World Series drought, one of the best was made when Willson Contreras put on shinguards for the first time.
Boredom, more than brilliance, triggered Contreras' move from third base and the outfield to catcher. It happened, in large part, because of what he did when he was left out of the lineup one day in instructional league, at almost the exact time that Theo Epstein was being hired to run the Cubs.
"One game I wasn't playing at all," Contreras said Wednesday at Cubs camp. "I was kind of bored in the dugout. I saw catcher's gear on the floor in the dugout and put it on."
Contreras moved down from the dugout to the bullpen and began warming up pitchers. He caught the eye of Oneri Fleita, who was then the Cubs' farm director.
"He called me in after," Contreras said. "[He] said, 'Hey, you want to play catcher?' I said, 'Yes, I'll play wherever you want.'"
Contreras pitched and played center field as a child growing up in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, a fishing town on the northern coast. His strong arm, speed and aggressiveness put him on the radar when he made his first visits to the Cubs' Venezuelan academy, conveniently located near his home.
"The thing that stuck out the most about him was just a presence," said Fleita, who is now scouting for the Tigers. "It seemed like he had some energy about him. He had a fast motor that you like to see in guys. It's a lot easier to slow the motor down than to speed it up. He was just one of those guys you couldn't get enough of. At that age, you don't know what guys are going to turn into. I like to write reports that the tools profile at as many positions as possible. The more positions, the better chance you have to get a big leaguer."
Contreras isn't just a big leaguer. He's arguably the best young catcher in the game, and he has a World Series ring to validate the belief he's always had in himself.
When Contreras was summoned from Triple-A Iowa, David Ross greeted him loudly. The veteran threw his hands in the air and yelled across the clubhouse.
"He's here!" Ross screamed. "The Prodigy is here! The Next Big Thing is here!"
Contreras smiled sheepishly, shook hands and got to work. He homered off the Pirates' A.J. Schugel in his first Major League at-bat -- a blast to center field -- and then put together a seven-game hitting streak before an 0-for-3. Contreras was so hot that Cubs manager Joe Maddon played him in left field and had him hit cleanup when he wasn't catching.
Contreras went on to hit .282 with 12 home runs and an .845 OPS in 76 games, including 45 starts at catcher. He didn't slow down much in the postseason either. Contreras delivered a two-run single off Will Smith in the middle of the ninth-inning comeback that allowed the Cubs to eliminate the Giants in the National League Division Series, and while he was only 2-for-19 in the World Series, one of the hits was a run-scoring double off Corey Kluber in Game 7.
"To do what he's done is a testament to his will," said Mark Johnson, a former Major League catcher who managed Contreras as he climbed through the Cubs' system. "He's just a very willful person. He wants it more than anybody I've ever coached. It's a thirst. It's a will. Whatever you want to call it, he has that about him. It's something special."
Nothing was more challenging for Contreras than learning to catch. He was fortunate that he started when he was still a teenager, and that the Cubs gave him both time and strong instruction from Tim Cossins, Johnson and their Major League coaches.
Cossins, hired away from Miami in another of the hundreds of good decisions during the Epstein era, was essential in helping Contreras learn both the mechanics and the nuances of catching.
"He is like everything for me," Contreras said. "Instructional league. During the season he went to where I was -- Rookie League, low [Class] A, [Class A Advanced]. He helped me on little things. He was always calling. Still in the big leagues we keep talking by the phone, texting. He's always helping me."
Contreras rose slowly through the lower Minors before a Double-A batting title established himself as someone capable of joining Anthony Rizzo, Kristopher Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez in the Cubs' young core.
"Nobody saw his bat coming like it has," Fleita said. "If anybody says they did, they're lying. I liked him as a catch-and-throw guy with an adequate bat. But we didn't think he'd hit enough to play third base. He has really turned into something. It's incredible. The only comp I can give from scouting is the young Russell Martin."
There were times in Contreras' climb when some in Epstein's front office wondered if he'd ever develop into an adequate pitch framer. Yet as a rookie, he ranked 23rd among 114 Major League catchers, according to statcorner.com. It was a strength of the Cubs' staff, as teammates Miguel Montero and Ross both ranked in the top 10.
Conteras loves to show off his arm. He threw out 13 of 35 runners attempting to steal last season. That came as no surprise to Johnson, who managed the 2012 Boise Hawks. Contreras threw out 23 of the 49 runners who tested him in his first year as a catcher.
Dave Martinez, the Cubs' bench coach, says Contreras likes to throw behind runners so much that he gets annoyed when Martinez signals for a pitcher to throw over to first base, shortening their lead. There's nothing he likes better than to pick off someone who strays too far from first base.
Ivan Rodriguez was like that, and he'll be inducted into the Hall of Fame in July. Contreras is just getting started, but he seems on his way to a great career.
Good thing he grabbed the gear and headed to the bullpen that day in instructional league.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.