According to Ken Rosenthal, the Chicago Cubs are dipping again into their war chest of top-shelf prospects, welcoming white-hot catcher Willson Contreras to the show. The move will (most likely) be made possible by designating veteran Tim Federowicz for assignment. Given Miguel Montero’s defensive struggles lately and David Ross’s age, it seems like the perfect time to give the top catching prospect his shot at the majors.
So with that, let’s take a look at the latest in the Cubs’ parade of young hitters.
Contreras has been a part of professional baseball at the minor league level since 2009, but has really caught fire over the last two years. He blew through AA in 2015, posting a glimmering slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) of .333/.413/.478 across 521 plate appearances. He totaled 71 hits with 8 homers in that time. There’s no question that those numbers show a monster at the plate, but what about discipline? Contreras impressed there too, posting a respectable walk rate of 10.9% and strikeout rate of 11.9%.
Despite earning his way to AAA in 2016 on those numbers, it did leave his power as something of a question mark. 8 home runs isn’t exactly a ton in that number of appearances, and he sported an ISO (isolated power, or extra base hits per plate appearance) of .145. For reference, league ISO average in the majors is usually around .140, per FanGraphs. Still, there’s no question that he impressed in Tennessee, and that he was becoming a top-flight player in the Cubs system. It’s generally accepted that there will be a drop off in the ridiculous numbers for prospects as they adjust to higher levels of competition even within the minors. It would have been fantastic if Contreras could have maintained that production in Iowa. That, however, did not happen.
He got better.
This year in AAA ball, Contreras improved in quite literally every single offensive statistic tracked at the minor league level, hitting a blistering .353/.442/.593 in 240 plate appearances. He totaled 40 hits, adding 9 home runs. If you recall, that’s one more than last year in more than double the at-bats. He’s also figured out how to tack on some power, with his ISO leaping to .240, a number that functions as a benchmark for premier sluggers in the major leagues. In the interest of getting a bit more visual, here’s a direct comparison chart:
Players aren’t supposed to leap like that when they move upward in levels of competition. Either set of numbers at the AAA level points to a majors-ready hitter, but that second set? It’s borderline criminal to leave that guy in the minors. But, you might ask, how does that look in context of his competition at AAA?
Contreras places near the top of all qualified AAA hitters in nearly every category. He’s 9th in ISO, 3rd in OBP, 4th in SLG, and 5th in AVG. His OPS of 1.035 is 3rd. That not impressive enough? What about the guys above him? There’s an answer to that too: they’re all older prospects or lifers. Contreras is 24, not exactly a youngster, but he does happen to be the youngest player in the top 5 for AVG, OPS, and SLG.
Side note: in two of those categories, there’s a certain 23 year old right outside the top five. That’s Dan Vogelbach, another Cubs prospect you might have heard of.
Contreras was walking slightly more in Iowa too, at a rate of 11.7% versus 10.9 last year. He was striking out a bit more also, 13.3% compared to 11.9%. He’s still top-20 in both. Finally, let’s look at his wRC+. For anyone unfamiliar with the stat, it’s a runs-created number that aims to measure a player’s total offensive contribution, weighted for things like extra bases and walks, controlled for park factors. 100 is always the average. Contreras’ wRC+ in AA was a robust 156. In AAA, it’s 176 (good for 3rd among qualified hitters).
Still not impressed? Spoiled by Kris Bryant and Javier Baez? Kyle Schwarber?
Contreras strikes out less than half as often as any of them did in their final qualified AAA season. He’s also sporting a higher number than any of them in their final AAA season in AVG and OBP. Only Schwarber tops him in SLG, .487 to .442. Both are still absurd numbers. He’s got all of them beat in wRC+.
No one expects Contreras to level out at this pace in the majors, especially right away. But he’s definitely ready, and by the numbers, he’s a more complete hitting prospect than the three guys taking all the headlines over the last few years. There’s every reason to believe he’s going to succeed, and he could be even better than they were early on. He’s got a compact, clean, and easy-to-replicate swing that should adjust fine.
The big question mark here is his defense, a marked weakness compared to his hitting prowess. He has great throwing power from behind the plate, but we have no idea how he’ll handle big league game calling and major league arms. Only time will tell there, really.
One thing’s for sure, though. Cubs fans can’t wait to meet Contreras; opposing pitchers will wish they never had.