Contreras eager to improve with Brewers

February 18th, 2023

PHOENIX -- The Brewers’ catcher whisperer, Walker McKinven, reached out soon after what proved to be Milwaukee’s biggest splash of the offseason.

He loved what he heard from .

“He was super eager to get video and do his own homework on all our pitchers,” said McKinven, the Brewers’ associate pitching, catching and strategy coach. “I'm excited for his future, man. Twenty-five is young for catcher, especially in the big leagues, especially with a year under your belt and an All-Star Game under his belt.

“The whole thing is in front of him, really.”

McKinven is part of a network of instructors that includes assistant director of player development Charlie Greene, Brewers coach Nestor Corredor, bench coach Pat Murphy and others who have had great success helping hit-first catchers become excellent receivers, going all the way back to Greene’s work with Jonathan Lucroy. Omar Narváez arrived as a hitter and left three years later via free agency considered a defender first, a departure that opened a spot for Contreras. The Brewers acquired him from the Braves in December as part of a three-team trade with the A’s.

The deal only cost Milwaukee one of its many outfield prospects, Esteury Ruiz. Scouts loved the return considering Contreras’ age, his early results -- he hit 20 home runs with an .860 OPS in 97 games for Atlanta last season while starting the All-Star Game alongside his brother, Cubs-turned-Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras -- and the fact that he is under contractual control for the next five seasons.

The Brewers have a returning catcher, Victor Caratini, who is helping Contreras get up to speed. The two have known each other since as early as 2016, when Caratini and Willson Contreras were both playing in the Cubs system. Caratini knows what it’s like to learn a new staff in short order. Last year, he was traded to the Brewers on the eve of Opening Day.

By that standard, Contreras has it easy.

“He’s going to be all right,” Caratini said.

“We're in a very good situation with a duo,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We're getting a young, new catcher, and for him to have somebody that he knows, that he trusts, that is embracing what his job is, who knows our staff, knows the league, it makes this a lot easier, I think, for everybody. So Victor's going to be important on the field and off the field.

“That's the job of catchers, I think. That's why their jobs are so difficult and they're so demanding. I just talked about that with the pitchers. [Catchers] have the most demanding job. They have great responsibilities towards the pitchers, and frankly, pitchers have to have the same responsibility towards them. It's a relationship that's clearly the most important in the game.”

The trade surprised Contreras, who’d been with the Braves since signing as a 17-year-old out of Venezuela in 2015. He posted a social media message of thanks to Atlanta fans that included several broken heart emojis, and said this week he was comforted by all of the welcoming replies from Brewers fans.

“I spent my whole career with the Braves organization so it was a little bit of a shock,” Contreras said. “But after a couple days you kind of turn the page and understand it’s a business, and I’m thankful to the Brewers for trusting in me and bringing me in here.”

That starts with getting to know the pitchers. Before the Brewers had even held their first organized workout for pitchers and catchers on Thursday, Contreras had caught All-Stars Brandon Woodruff and Devin Williams off a bullpen mound.

Does he agree with the assessment that his hitting is ahead of his defense?

“That’s kind of my reputation right now, that I’m more of a hitter,” Contreras said. “But I try to work 50-50 and I want to be as good a catcher as I am a hitter. Right now people are saying I’m 70 percent hitter and 30 percent catcher, but I want to even that out and I’m good on both sides.”

It’s a work in progress.

“I think time is probably his biggest ally,” Counsell said. “He's very gifted and he's very talented and he has the ability to do these things. So we'll get there. We're very confident that all the small tweaks that we’ll make, they'll happen. Defensively, it's there. Our job is to bring it out, and that takes time and consistent work. And that's what we have.”