Is Willson Contreras the Cubs’ Top Prospect?

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willson 82 2015Two of the great things about January are the Cubs Convention and prospect lists. This past weekend the convention took place. It was pretty cool as everyone was amped up about the coming season. One of the people I met was extremely high on Gleyber Torres, the Cubs top prospect. The man saw Torres play every home game, I took him at his word. I saw most home games on TV and I saw Gleyber in person at Burlington and Beloit. I loved watching him play. He looks effortless at the plate, and he makes the hard play look easy in the field.

However, as the weekend passed, I consistently heard high praise for Willson Contreras. It’s now Monday and I am starting to wonder if Willson Contreras is the Cubs top prospect.

What started me thinking about who the Cubs top prospect should be was the Saturday morning session with Theo Epstein and Cubs management. Contreras was praised for his bat and his athletic skills. The plaudits for Willson continued through Down on the Farm, the final session with Jason McLeod and Director of Player Development Jaron Madison.

At 23, Contreras has hit his stride as a top prospect. Here is what Fan Graphs said of Contreras recently:

Catchers are supposed to take the longest to develop fully, and Contreras’ chances of reaching his ceiling as a plus catching option will be a test of that received wisdom. That he performs at a high level only in flashes, and is likely to end up at Triple-A this year (thus shortening the window on his development time), probably mean that he’s less likely to reach his full defensive potential. I can’t help shake the feeling he ends up slightly below average overall, but his potential makes it difficult to put him lower on this list. Team sources put him in their top five, citing his Double-A batting title as a huge reason for optimism.

Signed in the Jim Hendry era of 2009 at 17 years old, Contreras took a long time to even making it on a prospect list. A year ago, he was not even on any top 30 list nor was he the top catching prospect in the organization. That fell to Kyle Schwarber followed by Victor Caratini.

Then 2015 happened. Contreras was the Cubs Minor League Player of the Year. He hit .333 with 8 HRs and 75 RBIs. He played mostly at catcher with eight games at 3B and 38 at DH.

Contreras had never hit higher than .273 in the states except at short season Boise in 2012, The next year was the first time that I saw him at Kane County in 2013. He hit .248 with a .320 on-base percentage. Even then you could tell he had good hands for hitting and behind the plate, along with great agility, but he had not put it together. The next year at Daytona, he hit .242, again with the .320 on-base percentage.

Willson had always been praised for his athletic nature. The 6’1” and 175-pound catcher actually started out as an infielder. He made the change to catcher in 2012 at Boise. In 2013, he played 72 games at catcher for Kane County. He played 73 more games at the position at high A Daytona and continued in the Venezuelan winter league. He played 75 games at catcher this past year at AA Tennessee.

willson 85 2015This winter, after being placed on the 40-man roster, Contreras worked with Cubs catching coach Mike Borzello. This spring, Contreras will be at the major league camp. He should be assigned to AAA Iowa to start the year. The Cubs could see Contreras this year if there is an injury to either Montero or David Roth. However, the likely plan is for Contreras to be ready at some point next year as Ross’ contract expires at the end of this year.

Contreras has become an elite prospect through hard work, discipline, and patience. When you go back and look at Contreras’ career stats, the interesting thing to me is that the batting average took a dive when he started catching. But then something started to happen at Kane County. Every year for the past three years, his walks have increased. It shows his plate discipline is getting better every year, something the Cubs covet in a hitter.

I used to think that no one was going to take away the top prospect belt from Gleyber Torres, at least through 2016. But Contreras could do that this year. The thing you have to remember about Gleyber is that he just turned 19 years old. He’s going to spend his entire 2016 season at Myrtle Beach. He is an excellent hitter who goes naturally to right center field with his swing. He did show some glimpses of power late in the year at South Bend.

On the other hand, Gleyber makes small mental mistakes in the field, mostly with men on base. He also has issues with base running from time to time; but, that is just nitpicking. He is truly a stunning ballplayer, but he has yet to play at the more advanced levels of the minors.

contreras 76I used to think that if Eloy Jimenez ever went on a streak of crushing the ball over the fence, that he could overtake Gleyber at some point in the next two years. But Contreras could do it this year. In fact, Contreras may be there already.

One of Contreras’ intangibles has been his work ethic. He came out of nowhere to most national people, but most minor league Cub fans knew of him and knew he possessed a lot of athletic talent. I don’t think anyone foresaw him making the leap to hitting .333 at AA and leading the Southern League in hitting. Contreras could make another jump in 2016 as the Pacific Coast League is more of a hitter’s paradise than the Southern League is. It appears as if Contreras and his bat are being groomed for 2017.

It should be interesting to see here in the coming few weeks where some of the top prospect evaluators place Willson on their prospect list. As of right now, Cubs Prospect Watch, Cubs Den, Fan Graphs, Baseball America, and Cubs Central (this site) all have Torres at number one. Four of the five lists (minus Fan Graphs) have Contreras at number two. His outstanding stint of just 10 games in the Arizona Fall League swayed me more than seven seasons of play.

Any day, John Sickels will release his top Cubs prospects list.  Keith Law will release his after the Super Bowl. And in early February, MLB will come out with their newest top 30 for the Cubs. Baseball Prospectus will probably have their top prospect list in early March. It’s going to be interesting to see where Contreras winds up on those lists. After the convention and heading into the season, I’m not so sure who is number one anymore. In the end, I have to ask myself, does one great year put him at the top? Or, is it about potential and who has the most?

 

 

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