2016 Fantasy Baseball: Prospect Profile — Willson Contreras
The Chicago Cubs are far and away the best team in Major League Baseball thanks in large part to their healthy core of young talent. But roughly halfway through their most dominant season in over three decades, the club seems ready to start interrogating their newest release of top prospects. Ken Rosenthal reported via twitter earlier today that the Cubbies would be promoting 24 year-old catcher Willson Contreras to the big leagues, and the promising young backstop will be joining the team tomorrow as they start a three-game series at home against the Pirates. Chicago DFA’d the light-hitting Tim Federowicz to make room for Contreras on the roster and will continue to carry three catchers going forward.
The Venezuelan-born Contreras has been in the Cubs organization since the age of 17 and was originally a third baseman before he was moved behind the plate. It’s not often you see position players converted into catchers (the Cubs actually did the opposite when they had Josh Donaldson in their system back in ‘07, ‘08), but Contreras is said to have the arm strength and bat to stick behind the plate. He threw out roughly 31% of attempted base stealers this season before his promotion, and ESPN’s Keith Law said that Contreras has the potential to be a “legitimate two-way threat behind the plate” with a 70-grade arm (on the 20-80 scale) in his scouting report. His pitch framing is below-average at the moment, which is to be expected by someone fairly new to catching, but Contreras definitely could be above-average defensively if he can improve on his presentation and footwork.
Much like his injured predecessor, Kyle Schwarber, Contreras is very much an offensive-minded catcher, but his full set of tools and rapid improvement have put him in the top-100 of virtually any prospect list out there. He was ranked No. 27 by Law, No. 67 by Baseball America, No. 50 by MLB.com, and No. 57 Baseball Prospectus heading into the 2016 season. He has put up his very best numbers in the highest level of Minor League Baseball. Contreras posted an incredible .350/.439/.591 slashline in Triple-A Iowa this year with nine homers and 16 doubles in 239 plate appearances after improving in each of his previous three seasons. He got off to a very slow start in his professional career, putting up league-average offensive numbers at best, but he started showing positive signs in 2014 at 22 in the Venezuelan Winter league where he slugged .545 in a short 26-game season.
Contreras really took off from there and slashed .333/.413/.478 the next year with the Double-A Tennessee Smokies. He continued to up his production after that breakout minor league campaign by going from an .891 OPS in Double-A to a .908 OPS in the Arizona Fall League to a whopping 1.030 OPS this year before being called up. The meteoric rise of Contreras is what got him to the big leagues faster than the other nine Cubs prospects ranked ahead of him on Fangraphs, but it remains to be seen just where his production will settle in at the Major League level.
At 6’1”, 210 lbs. Contreras has the stature and build of a big-league catcher with pop, but he seems to have more gap power with just 39 HRs in 2131 minor league plate appearances. He’s got quick hands despite having a big swing with a leg kick, and has also shown very good plate discipline with an 11.7% BB-rate and 13.3% K-rate in Triple-A. Contreras might not be a bad option for fantasy purposes thanks to his versatility as Cubs skipper Joe Maddon will likely try to find creative ways to get his bat into the lineup, even when he’s not behind the plate to spell the struggling Miguel Montero or aging David Ross. Neither veteran is particularly impressive with the stick, so it seems like Contreras will get his fair share of chances to slide into the starting role. If he can continue with the same approach at the plate, it is reasonable to expect around 10 homers and a .260 batting average out of Contreras for 2016, which is not bad at all for a half-season of production out of a catcher.