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The Pop-Up Prospect, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Willson Contreras

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Most breakout prospects are viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism, but there's little cause for concern with Contreras.

Sue Skowronski/Bleed Cubbie Blue

Calling Willson Contreras a pop-up or breakout prospect does not quite grasp just how dramatically the 23-year-old catcher rocketed into our consciousness this past season. Heading into 2015, Contreras did not merit so much as a mention in the top-tens of Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, nor was he anywhere to be found in or near the top-twenties of John Sickels' or Bleed Cubbie Blue. He did not make FanGraphs' top-31 Cubs prospects list, though he did garner a sentence in the 'others of note' section.

Today, Contreras is a consensus top prospect in the Cubs still deep organization. In addition to being named the top catching prospect in the game by MLB.com, he was ranked second in the organization by BA, fourth by Sickels, fifth by Fake Teams (self-promotion alert), and ninth by FanGraphs. How did we get here in just one short year?

Contreras was signed out of Venezuela in 2009, and made his professional debut as a third baseman. He spent his first three seasons at the hot corner, not shifting behind the plate until 2012 - his second season stateside, for his second trip through Low-A. It would be something of an exaggeration to say that Contreras took to the position like a fish to water, but he showcased terrific athleticism and an excellent throwing arm immediately. And his defense has only improved since then, as the relatively inexperienced catcher already profiles as an above-average receiver.

Contreras has steadily improved on offense, as well. He has demonstrated more patience at each level, and tightened up his swing, resulting in fewer swings and misses. In his two seasons at Low-A, he posted a 4.4 BB% and 18.8 K%. His walk rate nearly doubled to 7.5% in 2013, and improved to 8.8% in High-A in 2014 and 10.9% in Double-A last season (and all three seasons represented his first and only stops at those levels). His strikeouts dipped over time, as well, with Contreras striking out in just 11.9% of his PA in 2015.

And there's also the little matter of Contreras winning the Southern League batting title, hitting .333/.413/.478 with 8 HR (156 wRC+). Contreras was excellent from wire to wire last season, OPS'ing at least .843 every month, and impressing scouts with a mature yet aggressive approach. He has a controlled, level swing that allows him to cover the strike zone well, and enough bat speed to catch-up to premium velocity. While he may not be a genuine contender for batting titles at the big league level, he has the tools to hit .280 to .300. Contreras also has average to above-average power, which should allow him to hit 12 to 15 home runs regularly. And, if the wind is blowing out in Wrigley, he could luck into 20 once or twice.

Contreras may not have the look of a middle of the order threat like Gary Sanchez, but he comes with positional certainty and the ability to contribute better than most at catcher. A player batting .280 with a dozen home runs and 60-plus runs and RBi may not be sexy, but he would represent a solid contributor at most positions. And that potential in a catcher is always worth a little bit extra on draft day.