Last year I had the opportunity to watch the Cubs instructional league in Arizona. I wandered over to where the catchers were running drills and one player jumped out -- almost quite literally, from the pack.
The Cubs have some solid defensive catchers and there were many good ones that day -- good fundamentals, good technique. And then there was Willson Contreras. He wasn't as technically sound as many of the others, but his athleticism was evident. Contreras exploded out of his crouch and fired bullets to 2nd base. He pounced on baseballs during the bunting drills as if it were Game 7 of the World Series. There was this intensity about him. These weren't boring drills to him.
Who was this kid?
Contreras was signed as a teenager out of Venezuela -- as a 3B. He made his debut in the DSL at age 17 and was nothing special. In fact, it was pretty forgettable. He hit just .205 with a single HR. He repeated the league and improved to .313 with a .780 OPS and earned a promotion to Boise. He spent two years there as well and hit .268/.311/.352 with 5 HRs over 124 games. Again, not very impressive.
But there was one important development in his second season at Boise. The Cubs decided to try him at catcher. That appears to have been an inspired decision.
I came back from Arizona and raved about this kid's talent but had to admit the numbers didn't illicit a whole lot of excitement.
And they say that numbers don't lie. Except that they do sometimes, especially when you're talking about teenagers playing at the lowest levels of professional baseball.
Still, when I made my Cubs top prospect lists, against my better judgment I decided to leave Contreras off the list. I hedged my bet and waited to see how he'd handle full season A ball.
Fast forward to today and we see that Contreras had 2 hits today and is now hitting .307/.398/.568 and 5 HRs in 88 ABs. So far, so good.
Every so often, I'll get to sit near scouts and sort of pick their brain. Most of the time I'm bouncing my own thoughts off of them and they give me their own opinions. Today at the game, I decided to ask an open-ended question to a rival scout sitting next to me,
"Who do you like on the Kane County team?"
Although we talked about a few players over the course of the next few innings, he gave me two names off the bat. The first was Gioskar Amaya.
The name of the second player eluded him. "I also really like the catcher", he said as he perused his notes. "Number 19."
Number 19, of course, is Willson Contreras.
I told him I was also a fan. I listed reasons such as his athleticism, strong arm, his improved plate discipline, and his newly developed ability to hit for power. He seemed to agree, nodding silently, but he also liked him for a much more simple reason.
"He can hit a good fastball," he said, looking at me as if I just missed the most obvious thing of all.
Then, as if on cue, Contreras ripped a 94 mph pitch foul down the 3rd base line -- just foul. Earlier Contreras pulled a line drive single off Kurt Heyer, who was 92-94 all day and peaked at 96.
Add that to the list.
There is still long way to go and a lot learn for Contreras, so I still don't know if he is going to be a big league catcher, but the list of reasons why he can seems to be growing.