Is Willson Contreras Due for a Bounceback Season in 2019?

Cubs C Willson Contreras has been an important member of the Cubs since his debut in 2016 as the team’s third catcher. He was originally promoted to the bigs due to his hot bat and played a number of games at other positions in 2016 so that manager Joe Maddon could take advantage of his power while allowing veterans Miguel Montero and David Ross to still start behind the plate. Contreras was promoted to the primary catcher after Ross retired following the 2016 championship season and honed his skills, earning the trust of veteran ace SP Jon Lester, who has been the linchpin of the Cubs’ rotation since joining the team in 2015.

Contreras was an important offensive contributor for the Northsiders in 2016 and 2017. He hit .282/.357/.488 during 71 games in 2016, with an OPS of .845, 12 HR and 35 RBI. He was also the first Cub to homer as a pinch-hitter in his first at-bat in a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, likely earning his place on Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle’s shit list. In 2017, the catcher had a productive first half (pre-All-Star Break), hitting .261/.329/.454 with an OPS of .782, 11 HR and 41 RBI in 79 games but was sidelined by a hamstring injury in August. However, although he only played 38 games after the All-Star Break in 2017, his numbers improved to .305/.407/.586 with an OPS of .993, with 10 HR and 33 RBI, which led me to believe he was capable of an MVP campaign in 2018.

In 2018, Contreras was selected to his first All-Star Team as a starter, hitting .279/.369/.449 with an OPS of .818 with 7 HR and 34 RBI in 82 games prior to the All-Star break. However, like many of his fellow Cubs, his power numbers dropped off significantly in the second half. Following the All-Star Break, Contreras hit just .200/.291/.294 with an OPS of .585, 3 HR and 20 RBI. The reduced production in the second half from core players like Contreras was the main issue that resulted in the Cubs being overtaken by Milwaukee for the division championship and their subsequent early exit from the postseason.

While it’s not a mystery why INF Kris Bryant, who suffered a significant shoulder injury during the 2018 season, had a power outage in 2018 (by the way, Bryant still had an OPS+ of 119 in 2018), the same cannot be said for Contreras and others. The Cubs front office chose to blame hitting coach Chili Davis, who was fired during the offseason. For his part, Davis stated that he had trouble connecting with so-called “millennial” players (while people frequently use the term as a synonym for “teenagers” or “kids today”, according to the Pew Research Center, “Millennial” is a demographic term referring to persons currently between the ages of 22-37, comprising the majority of Major League Baseball players). Davis has since been replaced with Anthony Iapoce, formerly of the Texas Rangers.

One of the other factors that could have had a negative impact on Contreras’s production was lack of rest. Contreras played more games than he ever had before at the MLB level (138), although his reduced number of games in 2017 was due to the previously mentioned hamstring injury. The Cubs did not have a veteran backup catcher for most of 2018 as they chose to include prospect Victor Caratini instead of veteran Chris Gimenez on the Opening Day roster and did not bring Gimenez up until later in the year. Gimenez hit just .143/.219/.143 in 12 games with the Cubs and has since retired after playing 13 more games with the Minnesota Twins in 2018 to join the Los Angeles Dodgers coaching staff. I believe it will be important for the Cubs to acquire a proven veteran catcher to back up Contreras in order to prevent fatigue and also continue mentoring him on receiving skills and pitch framing, which is one of his few weak areas.

Contreras has had to put in considerable effort to reach the major leagues. He joined the Cubs organization in 2009 but did not catch until 2012 and originally had not been one of the Cubs’ top prospects. He was left off the 40-man roster prior to the 2015 season, which meant he could have been selected by another team in the Rule 5 draft. However, he remained with the Cubs, playing for AA Tennessee in a breakout season where he hit .333/.413/.478 with an OPS of .891, 8 HR and 75 RBI, winning the Southern League batting title. At AAA Iowa the following year, he improved to .353/.442/.593 with an OPS of 1.035, 9 HR and 43 RBI, earning his promotion to the Show.

Contreras has a reputation for being a fierce competitor, highly athletic and hardworking. In addition, he is still fairly young, heading into his age 27 season in 2019. I believe he should be able to bounce back during the coming season provided that the new hitting coach does not tinker too much with his swing and allows him to use the approach that has worked best in the past. The Cubs will also need to find a veteran backup catcher to support and mentor Contreras who they can trust to handle enough games to give him plenty of rest. Baseball Reference is optimistic about his prospects to improve in 2019, projecting him to hit .260/.343/.435 with an OPS of .778, 16 HR and 64 RBI. I look forward to seeing another All-Star season from Contreras, hopefully one of many.

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