By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Cubs catcher Willson Contreras sat on the bench after his team’s 2-0 loss to the Dodgers on Wednesday night, contemplating what went wrong. The 24-year-old Contreras had made a costly error on an easy assist chance that gave Los Angeles an insurance run in the ninth inning. That run wouldn’t prove to matter, but the young Contreras was still impacted by his mishap.
Teammates and coaches all have raved about Contreras’ work ethic and improvement from his rookie campaign in 2016. At the start of last season, Contreras was catching at Triple-A Iowa. Since last June, he has become an integral part of the Cubs’ championship team, a raw talent on arrival to the big leagues who may be challenging Giants catcher Buster Posey and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina for All-Star game playing time soon.
“He is really good,” Cubs right-hander John Lackey said. “He is a baseball guy. He wants to get in deep to (video). He wants to learn from the scouting report. It is fun to work with a young guy who is all in. He is fun to work with and obviously very talented. He is going to be a good player.”
Lackey isn’t an easy individual to impress. Contreras’ first starting assignments in 2016 were catching Lackey. There was certainly a learning curve, but his progress has impressed many, even with just 82 big league games under his belt. Contreras split time between catcher and left field last season. The year, he’s the team’s primary catcher.
“You can see the confidence he has now,” right-hander Kyle Hendricks said. “He has just continued to develop and learn from (catching coach Mike Borzello). In the beginning, you could see his drive to learn. He tried to take in all the information he could. Some of that comfortability and confidence took time to come. Now you can see he is confident in what he is calling behind the plate. That makes us pitchers trust him that much more. We always trusted him. His added confidence now allows us to take more suggestions from him.”
Contreras is a weapon beyond his catching and throwing abilities. During spring training, he showed a penchant for driving the ball to right field and out of the park. Many young catchers learn to sacrifice time on offense for the enormous defensive responsibilities demanded these days.
Contreras may be able to combine the two sets of skills this season. His 12 home runs in 2016 were the third-most by a Cubs rookie catcher, and he didn’t have the full season to accrue that number like Geovany Soto did in 2008 (23 homers) and Randy Hundley in 1966 (19).
Entering play Thursday, Contreras was hitting .292 with a homer, five RBIs and a .778 OPS in six games. On top of that, his focus has remained on being consistent for his pitchers and stealing some strikes with pitch framing.
“He is sitting quietly,” manager Joe Maddon said of Contreras’ progress on handling breaking balls. “If you ever watch Molina catch or the other really good catchers, on the edges they are normally very quiet. That allows the umpire a good look as they bring back the ball to the center of their bodies (with pitch framing). He works so hard both physically and mentally. None of this surprises me. He is just really good back there. Willson is just scratching the surface. He will continually get better. We really work on the edges a lot. He is doing a great job of adapting to it.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.