Willson Contreras might be the Cubs’ most important player in 2021
Shortly after the Cubs wrapped up their first official pitchers and catchers workout in Arizona, David Ross was asked about expectations for Willson Contreras this season.
Ross kept it simple.
“I want to keep him healthy,” Ross said. “I think he’s one of the most important pieces of this group, in my opinion.”
That’s high praise whenever a manager drops a line like that early in spring training and six weeks later, nothing has changed for the Cubs: Much of the team’s success in 2021 will run through Contreras.
The 28-year-old catcher is a huge key to what the Cubs will want to do both offensively and from a run prevention standpoint.
With all the new pitchers in town and a staff that will largely pitch to contact, it will be incumbent upon Contreras to guide his teammates through each game and work with the Cubs’ pitching infrastructure group.
“He’s an enormous part of the success of our pitching staff,” Tommy Hottovy said in an interview on Marquee Sports Network early in camp. “With the catchers every year — it starts and ends with them. We hold our catchers to such high standards and put so much on their plate for good reason because we know the impact that they have every game and with every pitcher that we have.
“Willson’s been in this organization and more importantly been around the major league infrastructure for a long time now. He’s continuing to grow and develop and show so much poise in high moments, understanding what he’s seeing from hitters, understanding what we want to do gameplan-wise. But then also what he’s seeing, what he’s getting from the pitcher, how he can make that pitcher the best version of himself that day and the feedback that he gives in between innings.
“…Our pitchers know that everything goes through the catching department. We trust those guys and we put a lot on their plate, so we obviously expect huge things from Willy. He’s an enormous part of the success of our pitching staff and especially the offensive side with what he can bring to the table. He’s such a dynamic weapon on both sides.”
Contreras has the power to singlehandedly keep the opposing team’s running game in check with his aggressiveness and strong arm:
He also took a big step forward in pitch-framing metrics last season, turning another part of his defensive game into a strength.
Offensively, Contreras has spent a lot of time hitting in the middle of of the Cubs’ order in recent seasons. This year, he could step into the all-important No. 2 hole, a position he has hit in only 8 times in his career.
He sports a lifetime .351 on-base percentage and averages 24 homers and 83 RBI per 162 games.
“He’s one of those guys that does a lot of things well,” Ross said. “He sees pitches, he’ll take his walks. It’s a really pain-in-the-butt at-bat from the other team’s perspective. He’s a nuisance up there for the other team.
“I love that at the top of the lineup when you got the big boys coming from behind him. It just really looks good.”
Contreras has started the All-Star Game the last two seasons for the National League squad and has said in the past he aspires to be the best catcher in baseball. This spring, he wouldn’t take the bait in making a similar statement.
But his teammates don’t mind making such bold claims.
Jake Arrieta is back with the Cubs after spending the last couple years throwing to Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto. The veteran pitcher got to watch Contreras break into the big leagues in 2016-17 but he’s seen a whole other level from his batterymate this spring.
“He’s one of the best in the game,” Arrieta said. “I believe him and J.T. are the two best catchers in baseball and that’s extremely high praise and it’s well deserved.
“He’s taken many strides and I just love watching him go about his business. … The main thing I’ve noticed is how focused he is and how determined and dedicated he is to this baseball team.”
The Cubs are always conscious of Contreras’ health and energy level, but that will be especially true this season.
For all the talk around baseball of managing pitchers’ workloads this season coming off a 60-game slate, catchers will also have to make the adjustment to squatting for all those innings.
The Cubs are confident Contreras can shoulder the load in part due to his work ethic. Arrieta was impressed when he walked into the Cubs spring complex one morning and saw Contreras in the weight room with Cubs strength coach Shane Wallen after catching a game the night before.
“He’s in probably some of the best shape of anybody on our team,” Ross said. “He’s strong, he’s durable. We gotta protect his legs. Saying that, he’s gonna catch a ton of games. That’s just a fact.
“As long as he’s healthy and feeling like he can go, he’s gonna be the guy I’m going to pencil in the lineup.”
Veteran Austin Romine was signed over the winter to be Contreras’ backup but he’s been on the shelf in spring training due to a knee sprain and P.J. Higgins might be in line to serve as the Cubs’ second catcher on the Opening Day roster. While the team is high on Higgins, he has yet to play in a big-league game.
The schedule works in the Cubs’ favor early on in the season as they have four off-days in the first three weeks. That will allow Contreras to catch the vast majority of those first few games (health permitting) as the Cubs aim to get off to a hot start this year.
Contreras is entering his sixth season in the big leagues and understands how much will be on his plate this year.
“I’m just trying to be the guy that is trying to guide the team on the right path,” Contreras said. “I’m trying to be the right guy for the younger guys so they can have my support, but also, I’m trying to win the games.
“I’m trying to get the best out of me and to get the best out of the pitchers and that’s why I’m going to try to be a leader.”