The Willson Contreras Scouting Report

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras was already creating a good deal of discussion within the industry before the trade deadline last year and, indeed, teams were asking about Contreras as that day came and went. The Cubs rebuffed and Contreras continued what was arguably the biggest breakout among positional prospects in 2015 on through Arizona Fall League, where every team saw him succeed against a superlative class of AFL arms before he tweaked his hamstring hauling ass down to first base on a groundout the first week of November and was shut down. He picked up where he left off in 2016 and owns a .350/.439/.591 line at Triple-A Iowa with 28 extra-base hits in just 239 PAs.

While the most exciting aspect of Contreras’ profile is his bat, his defense will probably dictate how much he plays initially. He hasn’t been catching very long. Since debuting for the Cubs’ Dominican Summer League team in 2009, Contreras has appeared at first base, second base, third base, at both outfield corners and only began catching in 2012. He has spent an average of 73 games behind the plate in each of the last three years.

Things are okay back there. His receiving is not great but not so horrendous that he’s unplayable. He was dropping some pitches last fall and that’s continued into this season. Contreras’ glove hand can sometimes be slow to react to wildness, especially up above the strike zone, and he’s had some issues with passed balls there and with handling some balls down below his left knee. He also struggles with some of catching’s finer points. I’ve seen him cross himself up, I’ve seen him come out of his crouch before the ball crossed the plate and block the umpire from seeing what looked like a strike. Most of the pop times I’ve gotten on Contreras have been between 2.03 and 2.07 seconds (basically a 45 on the scouting scale) but I’ve also gotten a few down around 1.9 (which is plus). He has quick feet and good natural arm strength so I think we’ll see some improvement there with polish.

Contreras has rare, quick-twitch athleticism that’s most apparent in the way he moves around behind the plate and blocks balls in the dirt. This kind of athleticism — plus his relatively new foray into squatting — is why, despite the flaws I described above, most of the industry thinks we’re going to see continued defensive improvement. I’ve gotten nothing but good reports on Contreras’ makeup, both from sources inside the organization and out, and he is an outwardly intense, high-energy player. Working alongside David Ross probably won’t hurt, either. He’s probably a below-average defender overall right now, though he certainly has his strengths and will make some spectacular plays, but certainly has the ability to be at least average back there eventually.

The bat could be special, and not just in a way that is special for catchers. Contreras has plus-plus bat speed and an explosive weight transfer that results in plus raw power to all fields. He’s spent the last few years toying with his leg kick and stride, at times having none at all and at others featuring big, aggressive lift. It looks as though he’s settled on something in the middle and it’s certainly working for Contreras.

Swing-wise, there is some extra noise in the hands but bat speed like this allows for it. Though the raw power is plus, Contreras doesn’t have a power-before-hit approach to hitting and he’s shown the ability to dive in and slap ball on the outer half the opposite way. That he can recognize pitch type and location and adjust his swing to make solid contact to all fields bodes well for his ability to make contact, though this kind of approach will probably suppress his in-game power output below the raw grade. I think he’s got a chance to be a 60 hitter — aided by unusual speed for a catcher — with 50 game-power at maturity. That kind of bat plays in the middle of the order. His walk rate has been trending up since he entered pro ball.

Even if the defense, with flashes of brilliance and rashes of frustration, is just average on the whole, that’s a middle-of-the-order bat at a premium position and the profile of an above-average regular. If the glove comes along significantly with big-league instruction (and Contreras has the athleticism to support projection there) then he’s a 60.

Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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Psychic... Powerless...
7 years ago

Really enjoying your stuff so far, Eric.