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Contreras earning respect as young leader

Cubs confident catcher will adjust to new pace of play rules
MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

MESA, Ariz. -- When Cubs pitcher Jon Lester got off to a slow start last season, Willson Contreras was worried.

"I started asking him so many questions. 'What do I need to do to get him better?'" Contreras said. "He said, 'Don't worry about it. We've got this.' He had a decent season, but not as good as he is. I think this year we'll have a better season."

MESA, Ariz. -- When Cubs pitcher Jon Lester got off to a slow start last season, Willson Contreras was worried.

"I started asking him so many questions. 'What do I need to do to get him better?'" Contreras said. "He said, 'Don't worry about it. We've got this.' He had a decent season, but not as good as he is. I think this year we'll have a better season."

Former catcher David Ross, now a special assistant on the Cubs staff, wasn't surprised to hear how concerned Contreras was about one of his pitchers.

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"That speaks to his character and why he is a leader because he has that mentality," Ross said. "When you have the, 'How can I make you better?' mentality, that's great. One of the key pieces for this team last year and this year will be Willson and his ability to work this pitching staff. It's such a talented pitching staff.

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"I promise there's not a harder worker I've been around in the catching group who is as young and dedicated as he is."

Now, Contreras, 25, just needs more experience and someone to keep track of how many visits he makes to the mound. Contreras is well aware of Major League Baseball's pace of play rules that will limit clubs to six mound visits per game.

"It's my team. We just care about winning," Contreras said. "If they're going to fine me for the number seven mound visit, I'll pay the price."

Said Ross: "I think it will be harder for Willson than it would for me, and I went a lot."

Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer expects Contreras to make the adjustment.

"He's only had a year and a half [in the big leagues]," Hoyer said. "He doesn't have a lot of habits to break. I don't think it will be hard."

It's just a matter of picking the right spots.

"You always want your pitcher and catcher to be on the same page, right? So when you're not, you need to talk about it," Ross said. "I have a reason why I'm calling what I'm doing, and I'm sure the pitcher has a reason why he wants to throw what he wants to throw. The conversation goes a long way."

Video: Willson Contreras is the No. 3 catcher right now

Cubs manager Joe Maddon said they have to make sure to use the visits to improve communication instead of worrying about whether the opposition is picking up their signs. The Cubs' preparation each game day is very detailed, and Contreras often has made trips to get the pitcher back on track.

"Willson studies well, really well," Maddon said. "Blame [the mound visits] on us, because we're big on that and we think it's a big part of our success. That's what concerns me the most is that we're unable to communicate a thought that's necessary, not necessarily about changing signs."

It's all part of Contreras' development.

"I think the sky's the limit," Hoyer said of Contreras' potential. "He can throw, he can block, he's super athletic, he plays with an edge. I'm glad he's on our side. I do think there's a lot more levels to go, as far as his performance."

Lester has seen a difference, too, saying this Spring Training is so much easier.

"I love everything he does back there," Lester said. "He's not afraid. As a young guy, he calls people out when he needs to, and behind the plate, he's not afraid to get in an umpire's face. He's not scared. I loved his preparation and how he prepared for every single game, and it wasn't just for himself but for who was on the mound. That's hard to teach."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

Chicago Cubs, Willson Contreras