Okay, the flag flying next to the scoreboard is irrefutable proof that the change from well liked and respected baseball man Jim Hendry to former wunderkids Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer was correct. There has been little doubt of that fact for a while. And sure, Hendry's first swing at the apple came the closest to a title any of us has seen unless you happened to be alive in 1945. It might have happened that year without baseball baseballing in those final five outs. But those brief spasms of success under Jim Hendry all the way back to Dallas Green or longer have been replaced with the sustained success promised at the outset from this new baseball leadership.
The Ivy League duo became the model endlessly copied as baseball executives are becoming more akin to hedge fund managers. Their promise was delivered in the form of the most successful three year period in modern Cubs baseball. Three trips to the National League Championship equal the total number of trips earned prior to Theo Epstein's arrival. The 292 regular seasons wins in that span are better than any three year totals since World War I. But all of those are results. They don't reveal the process through which this long awaited renaissance was built upon, and the three players chosen below represent several key facets of this blossoming.
Process was an early watchword of the current baseball operations regime. The word has taken on a life of its own since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer made it a mantra on the northside. It became a buzzword signifying analytics or new-school thinking. Then it became so overused that it became a punchline, but the early adopters in baseball are sitting on top of the baseball world, currently in the Houston Astros and these Chicago Cubs. Process is also something that John Arguello would preach constantly. I knew John was most proud of Theo Epstein, saying that he was one of the first people outside of the organization to truly understand and appreciate what they were doing. John frequently wrote about the process behind the decisions being made up and down the organization. That process is why Jon Lester’s fifth trip to All-Star Game is his second in a Cub uniform. It is why Javier Báez and Willson Contreras are starting in their first All-Star Game.
The process drew our attention to the farm and we watched as most of this lineup matriculated through to eventual big league time. However, the success of this team also came from major free agent investments before the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Each one of which looks smart for the 2018 campaign, but Jon Lester might be the best free agent contract signed in franchise history. Lester was the Jayson Werth legitimacy bringing deal, but he was more than a symbol with his performance. The big lefty has thrown 114 games just a little over half way through his contract, which at the time was the largest in club history. His 3.20 ERA just begins to describe how important the veteran's presence has been on a team lead by its starting staff. Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist are two bats whose resurgence is both critical and unusual as the franchise has long been a harbor for players in the twilight of their career. Jason Heyward emerging from the woods might be the most surprising, given how large his struggles have been, but that Ben Zobrist’ downturn in 2017 was due to injury might be the most important for the lineup come the postseason.
The pair of first timers makes up the rest of the Cubs All-Star representation and is an interesting example for another phase of the rebuild process, which is less often talked about. Javier Báez and Willson Contreras each were brought into the organization under Jim Hendry, and it shows that the respected baseball man was a very good scout at heart. The problem with the Cubs during the Hendry regime frequently wasn't scouting, because many talented players ended up in the system, but Báez and Contreras both represent players that probably would have struggled under the old player development system. Theo Epstein created the player development machine he promised as guys like Báez and Albert Almora Jr. sat on the big league bench with a purpose. That is in stark contrast to when rookies seemingly languished on Dusty Baker's bench, only getting rare spot starts against some of the toughest pitchers. Báez in particular has completely transformed himself since reaching the big leagues as Michael recently wrote in an excellent piece on his evolution.
However, my first thoughts on the news were of Willson Contreras and the original Cubs Den writer, John Arguello. John was among the first to really see Willson’s potential, but now everyone sees just how good the young catcher is.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) July 8, 2018
It has been nine years since Willson Contreras signed with the 2009-2010 international amateur class. Contreras initially signed for $850,000, which was the second highest total in a group tapping non-traditional baseball markets like South Korea and Taiwan along with Venezuela. His contract was voided for some reason that I have never been able to track down, but he did eventually sign. Willson spent two years overseas at the hot corner before making his statesides debut in 2011. Cubs Den started just before spring training began that year. It would be a year and half before John would write the name Willson Contreras in any post. The first mentions occur in June 2012 as Contreras is listed on Boise's roster, now as a catcher. He gets brief mentions in recaps and draws some notice from Baseball America, being on the just missed for the 2012 Northwest League's Top 20. It is at the end of 2012 when John really becomes a fan of Contreras. He wrote this about Willson after the 2012 season: breaking down the catcher position in the system.
This guy has really grown on me. He's athletic for the position and of all the catchers I saw in the instructional league, he was the quickest out of the chute. He also displayed a strong throwing arm. Like the Cubs most recent top catching prospects: Clevenger, Castillo and Geovany Soto, he's a converted infiielder (3B) so he's going to have to learn the nuances of the position. The physical tools are all there. Thankfully for Contreras, he had the perfect manager in Mark Johnson, a former big league catcher, to help him with things such as managing a game and handling pitchers.
As for his bat, Contreras batted .276/.316/.357 and is an aggressive hitter who started to show some gap power late in the season. He hit near the middle of the lineup most of the time on what was a dynamic offensive team, so that should tell you the Cubs have some faith in his bat. At 20 years old and standing 6'1, 175 lbs, he has time and room to fill out a bit and gain strength, perhaps leading to a bit more power down the line. Aside from refining his receiving skills, Contreras also appeared to be working on this approach at the plate. He drew 5 walks in his 22 PAs this fall at instructs. Small sample but it did appear he was making a concerted effort to be more selective.
He's raw and may not be as likely to make the majors as the next two guys on this list, but he has the highest ceiling in this group.
Contreras was fully established as a catcher and John frequently would tell stories about watching him in Arizona. The description Joe Maddon used of Willson "playing as if his hair was on fire" proved apt throughout his professional career. John raved about the focus and intensity with which Contreras worked on basic drills. Having watched Contreras fire 90 mile an hour strikes to Rizzo on routine grounders makes it easy to picture the scene John described here. The infectious enthusiasm and reckless abandon of Willson’s and Javy’s play are a joy to watch, and those traits were already on display when Willson was a 19 year old in Arizona.
The story that always stick out in my mind comes a little bit later when Contreras had reached then low A affliate Kane County, and John was there to capture a memorable moment in Contreras early career. The edge that Contreras plays with was evident as he was a 21 year old kid playing in the northwest suburbs.
There was also a scary collision at the plate when Cedar Rapids player Niko Goodrum was sent home from 3rd for some reason even though it was clear he was going to be out by a mile. Cougars catcher Willson Contreras was waiting with the ball when Goodrum was only about halfway down the line. The 6'4", 200 lbs Goodrum decided to try and shake the ball loose but Contreras aggressively came out to meet him and tagged him on the chest, but according to reader Willie G. (who talked to Contreras after the game) he caught Goodrum in the neck/head area with his shoulder. Goodrum's helmet came flying off and he fell with a thud, apparently knocked out before he even hit the ground. He had to be revived with smelling salts and was taken off the field in a stretcher and in an ambulance. According to Willie, Contreras was okay but seemed shaken up about it. He's a tough player who plays with an edge but he obviously didn't want to hurt him in that way. The guess here was that it was a concussion and Goodrum did wave to the crowd as he was carried off the field. It's unfortunate the aggressive play ended in an injury but it was not intentional. I have to admit that, injury aside, I like his tough, hard-nosed style of play. The Cubs could use that kind of player.
John would continue to document the progress of many young Cubs hitters, but Contreras was a frequent under the radar pick from John in his lists. Here is John on Contreras after the 2013 campaign.
You'll have no trouble lighting a fire under Contreras. He plays the game with passion but it sometimes gets the best of him. There were a few incidents last year that involved Contreras at the plate last season. He's a tough kid with excellent athleticism for a catcher. You may remember me raving over a year ago about how he stood out in instructs during catchers' drills, pouncing on bunts with incredible quickness and agility and firing missiles to 2B. He has yet to develop a feel for the art of catching, however, and that may take some time.
...Contreras needs to channel his aggressive play and refine his catching skills to take the next step. The athleticism, passion, and work ethic is there for him to continue to improve. I think he has the upside of a a solid everyday catcher in the big leagues but he is also a high risk player with a low floor.
Contreras continued to play and move up the system spending full years at each level from Boise to Daytona. John would continue to proselytize about the supremely talented and driven and raw converted catcher, but the numbers on the field did not back up what John saw. Willson's OPS was in the .600s in three of his four stateside years. Contreras was famously left exposed in the Rule 5 draft that offseason in part due to that offensive downturn from .742 in Kane County as a 21 year old to .679 as a 22 year old in Daytona. Every team passed and the Cubs were grateful as the light clicked in Tennessee. The bat became incredibly potent as the middle of the order hitter emerged from the athletic catcher. Contreras was added to the 40 man roster that offseason and made his debut in 2016. His presence on the team was described by Joe Maddon as being "oxygen" at the time.
John left us at the end of this month last year. Willson and Báez exemplify the approach that John tirelessly explained as it was occurring, and John was one of Willson's earliest supporters and believers. John got to see his development into legitimate star, and early May wrote about the growth of Contreras. There is no snippet that could do it justice. So instead read the whole thing here. John saw it early on, and that is just one example of why he was legitimately respected in the scouting community. He couldn't have earned higher praise nor did he seek it.
John left the world on top. Willson is still climbing, and for that I am sure John is still smiling.