December 2009: Contreras signed with the Cubs, out of Venezuela, via scouts Hector Ortega and Juilio Fiegueroa.
Willson spoke no English when he came to the U.S. "But I learned from teammates and worked hard to get better. Now I'm comfortable talking to anybody," Contreras said in 2015. He realizes he is like a second pitching coach/manager to the staff and has taken more of a leadership role. And communication is essential for a catcher.
"(Contreras) is like the second manager or second pitching coach," Tennessee manager Buddy Bailey said. "If the pitcher and catcher can understand each other, you don't have to burn a trip to the mound. It's important for them to be able to talk."
- September 2015: Contreras, who caught for the Double-A Tennessee Smokies, was named the Cubs' Minor League Player of the Year.
Ranked No. 10 in the organization, he finished his first year at the Double-A level with a .333 average, good enough for the Southern League's batting title. The 23-year old is the first Tennessee player to win the title since Joe Gate in 1978.
And for the catcher, who split time at the position early in the season with current Cubs rookie Kyle Schwarber, the feat caught him off guard. After Schwarber was recalled, Contreras moved into the everyday role, finishing second in the league in doubles (34), RBIs (75) and on-base percentage (.413). (Greg Garno - MLB.com.)
In 2016, Baseball America rated Contreras as the second-best prospect in the Cubs organization.
- A signing snafu caused the Cubs to void Contreras’ original 2009 contract. As a result, he has been eligible for the Rule 5 Draft every year since 2010, but the Cubs never lost him despite his athleticism and loud tools.
Contreras didn't reach Double A until his seventh professional season.
June 17, 2016: This was Willson Contreras' first day of "summer school" with the Cubs. The club's top catching prospect and second-ranked overall prospect was promoted from Triple-A Iowa to the big league team as part of his development, with the goal not to start five days a week but to learn what it takes to prepare so he can help later in the season.
"He knows how to play baseball; he's really good," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Contreras. "You'll see him hit, you'll see him make great throws, and he's going to run, all this stuff.When it comes down to putting the right fingers down at the right moment for our pitchers, that's different. And that's the part that has to be learned."
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein said the Cubs will carry three catchers as Contreras, 24, joins Miguel Montero, 32, and David Ross, 39, who will help in the tutoring. Tim Federowicz was designated for assignment to make room for Contreras on the roster.
"We've had good experience in the past calling up young guys to get them acclimated before they have to carry a large responsibility," Epstein said. "The timing is right [for Contreras] with the team playing well and a little bit of roster flexibility. Most important, he's earned his way up here."
Contreras shadowed pitching coach Chris Bosio during early side work, and helped out by catching John Lackey. While at Iowa, Contreras was watching Cubs games on television, and charting the pitchers. Chicago catching coach Mike Borzello stayed in touch via text messages, telling him things to work on and watch.
"I put myself behind the plate during those games," Contreras said. "Now I'm here, and I can't wait to be on the field and be behind the plate."
How long will Contreras stay? That's still to be determined.
"It could be short [term], it could be long, it could be we need a roster spot and he has to go back," Maddon said.
Contreras, well aware of his role, soaked it all in. "I did it—this is what I dreamed about since I was a kid," Contreras said. "This is an amazing feeling."
"He's got everything it takes to be a big league catcher and a future All-Star catcher," Montero said.
Maddon was impressed with Contreras' approach during 2016 Spring Training. "He's an intense young man," Maddon said. "The biggest thing is to have him generate or process that passion he has in the right direction. He's involved every moment." (C Muskat - MLB.com - June 17, 2016)
Anyone who has seen Willson Contreras play knows the Cubs catcher is passionate about the game, and that was evident when scout Paul Weaver first saw the youngster at a tryout in Venezuela. The only problem he had was getting Contreras off the field.
Weaver was the Cubs' international scouting director in 2009, and he went to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, at the urging of scouts Hector Ortega and Julio Figueroa. Contreras played shortstop and center field in the Criollitos Little League, and Ortega and Figueroa first saw him play at the El Palito refinery, which is a local field in Puerto Cabello. At the tryout, Weaver and the Cubs' scouts watched the outfielders, then the infielders, then the catchers. Contreras was everywhere.
"Willson started in the outfield, then he took ground balls at shortstop, and then he took ground balls at third base," Weaver said. "He wanted to play every position."
Even then, Contreras had a good, compact throwing motion -- as well as a great personality. "[Weaver] called me over to the side and said, 'How old are you?' And I said, 'I'm 16,'" Contreras said. "He said, 'Sooner or later, you're going to play for the Cubs.' I was excited."
Weaver saw enough, and the Cubs signed Contreras that day.
"Talking with Hector and writing the report, I said, 'Where's this guy going to play?' And Hector said, 'What do you think?'" Weaver said. "I said, 'I think he might be a candidate to catch.' He had a lot of intangibles. All of us go out and look for the physical tools, and he had the physical tools, but he also had a tremendous amount of passion. He was a high-energy player and loved baseball. You could see it."
Weaver was to attend tryouts in four places over a five-day period in Venezuela, and the day after signing Contreras, they drove to another park, arriving at 9:30 a.m.
"The first guy sitting in the dugout is Willson Contreras," Weaver said. "Hector and I go up to him and say, 'What are you doing here?' He said, 'I want to work out.' He said, 'It doesn't matter. I want to play,'" Weaver said.Contreras smiled when asked about that. "That's true," Contreras said. "That's me. I just wanted to play."For five straight days, Contreras showed up at the Cubs' tryouts. Some of the locations required two- to three-hour drives from his home, but it didn't matter.
"After the third or fourth day, I said, 'Hector, tell Willson he doesn't have to keep coming every day,'" Weaver said. "Hector said, 'Paul, you go tell him, because he wants to be here every day.' That's just the type of kid he is." Weaver -- who was a scout for 40 years, covering the U.S., Latin America and Asia at various times -- asked Contreras where he wanted to play.
"It was hard on him coming in last year, not really catching a lot of guys and having to get to know us and just getting thrown into the situation," Lester said of Contreras, who was promoted from Triple-A in mid-June. "It's just a matter of throwing and innings and pitches and all that stuff. I'm not concerned about it at all. Willie's such a good kid and cares, and he wants to learn and he wants to get better. I don't see any reason why this will be an issue for anybody."
How much does Contreras care? Lester was to throw a side session this spring, and he asked the coaches if Contreras was available. He wasn't, because the catcher was slated to start in that day's Cactus League game. When Contreras heard that Lester had asked, he got into his gear and caught the bullpen session, then started the game.
"That's one of the things you love about him is that he loves to play," Weaver said. "Some guys like to play, but he loves to play. He has the passion and the willingness to compete. Anywhere you put him, he'd compete. He's a wonderful kid, loves baseball, loves people. It's worked out great for him." (Carrie Muskat - MLB.com - March 8, 2017)
To describe Contreras in one word, it would be: Confident. It stems from his drive to do things the right way, no matter what it takes. Willson said his element was missing from his game in the early stages of his career and has recently help shape him into the player he is today.
"I learned to have confidence in myself during my minor league career," Willson said. "Once I learned that, I told myself that I'm never going to lose it again because it's not easy to learn that part o the game and that confidence. That's been one of the biggest keys to my success in the big leagues." (Phil Barnes - Vine Line - June, 2017)
- Sept 16-17, 2017: Cubs catcher Willson Contreras didn't waste any time before apologizing to umpire Jordan Baker. One day after Baker ejected Contreras from the game, the umpire and catcher shook hands at home plate. And the next day, Contreras' two-game suspension was reduced to one game, which he served. "I did something wrong, and that wasn't me; that was the adrenaline from the game," Contreras said after the Cubs' 4-1 win over the Cardinals. "I needed to apologize. Nobody's perfect. That was part of my job today was to apologize to everybody and move on. (C Muskat - MLB.com - Sept 17, 2017)
- 2018: Contreras signed a one-year deal for $604,500.
|Birth City:||Puerto Cabello, Venezuela|
|Draft:||2009 - Cubs - Free agent|
Contreras has a very good eye at the plate. And he some power, which should increase for the next several years.
Willson draws a lot of walks, so he normally posts a very good on-base-percentage.
Contreras had a breakout year in 2015. He significantly improved focus and finally stuck to an offensive approach, no longer giving away at-bats by chasing the pitcher's pitch.
"The big difference is getting the opportunity to play every day," Willson said. "I've been able to keep a good approach at the plate and get good swings every at-bat.
"Playing in Venezuela this winter was a big help," the right-handed batter said. "It was my first year in the league, and I got to play against a lot of big leaguers and veteran guys. It's hard for rookies in the leagues—a lot of pressure. But I worked through it and learned a lot."
- 2015 Season: Contreras had nearly as many walks (53) as strikeouts (61). Willson has always had natural hand-eye coordination. Plus he has grown into more strength, now having not only power to the gaps, but some leave the yard.
One pitch, one swing, one home run. Willson connected with a first-pitch changeup, held his bat high, and watched as a line drive sailed 415 feet, over the Wrigley Field ivy and into history.
Contreras hit a two-run home run in his first Major League at-bat on Father's Day 2016 in a 10-5 win over the Pirates. He had been called up two days prior and had appeared only as a defensive replacement. He was in the bullpen when he found out he was going to pinch-hit for pitcher Kyle Hendricks in the sixth inning. Moments later, Contreras walked to the plate ready, he said, not nervous. Contreras came up to the sound of a standing ovation. He said he was trying to hit a single.
When Pirates righthander A.J. Schugel left a changeup high, Contreras exceeded his own dreams. "I was ready for my first Major League at-bat, but I didn't imagine it was going to be a homer," Contreras said.
As the ball cleared the wall, Wrigley Field erupted with fans cheering the official merger between present and future. There was a noticeable shake throughout the old stadium. Contreras rounded the bases, pointing to the sky as he came around first. He was met with hugs at home plate and joy in the dugout.
"It's an amazing feeling," Contreras said. "It's incredible. I don't have the words to explain how happy I am to be here."
Contreras became the 27th player in history and the first Cub to homer as a pinch-hitter in his first at-bat. He is the first Cub to homer in his first at-bat since Jorge Soler in 2014. Contreras is also the first Cub to homer on his first pitch since Jim Bullinger in 1992. (Stavenhagen - MLB.com - 6/19/16)
- As of the start of the 2018 season, Willson's career Major League stats were: .278 batting average, 33 home runs, with 109 RBI's in 629 at-bats.
Willson is a solid defensive catcher. He blocks the ball real well. He is a high-energy, very confident backstop. He has good hands, and is a strong receiver. He has an above-average arm behind the plate and has improved his blocking and receiving. (Oct. 2016)
"Just pure catch-and-throw-wise, he’s probably as good as we have,” said Cubs farm director Jason Madison late in 2015.
“He is super athletic, with a strong arm,” Iowa manager Marty Pevy said in 2016. “He’s the most athletic catcher in baseball today.”
Contreras has a fine arm. His arm can improve by shortening his arm path and quickening his release. He consistently flashes 1.9 to 2.0 pop times (from home to second base). (Oct. 2015)
Willson is improving at calling a game. Sometimes he wants to trick people instead of doing the best thing.
He needs to learn each pitcher and what they can do in situations. Sometimes he asks them to do things they can't do and maybe shouldn't be trying to do at this stage.
Contreras also plays some third base, as well as in the outfield.
Contreras didn't start catching until 2012. He started catching by accident. At Boise, he saw a set of catching gear and put it on and went to the bullpen. That caught the eye of Oneri Fleita, the Cubs' former vice president of player personnel, who asked Contreras if he wanted to pursue catching.
The Cubs, who were very thin behind the plate jumped when Contreras said yes, and the learning began.
"The maturity he made in one year was incredible, and he's only going to get better," pitching coach Chris Bosio said in 2016. "A lot of guys will improve in the minor leagues, but there's a select few who will get better at the big-league level even more. I think Willson is one of those guys."
Willson is the kind of athletic, strong-armed, powerful-legged, young catcher who you don’t come across very often. Add the work ethic on top of the ability, and there is no stopping this guy.
"When he handles the pitchers, he’s thoughtful,” said Cubs' manager Joe Maddon, a former minor league catcher. “He knows what’s going on out there. This kid’s in on every pitch—every pitch.”
In 2016, Willson threw out 37 percent of base-stealers, 7th best in the National League among catchers with 50 games played.
According to statcorner.com, he accrued .5 percent more strikes per game with his pitch framing, 10th among NL catchers with at least 3,500 pitches received.
In 2017, Contreras threw out 23 of 84 base-thieves/27% success.
- Willson has decent, 45 grade speed on the 20-80 scouting scale—very good for a catcher.
November 6, 2015: Contreras suffered a hamstring injury, missing the Arizona Fall Stars game.
- Aug 10-Sept. 10, 2017: Contreras was on the DL with right hamstring strain.