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Prospect on the Rise: Willson Contreras, C, Chicago Cubs

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Just what the rest of the National League Central Division needs: another intriguing Chicago Cubs prospect on the near horizon, and at a premium defensive position no less.

Cubs catching prospect Willson Contreras experienced a breakthrough 2015 season. Signed out of Venezuela by the Cubs in 2009, he has generally been overshadowed by other prospects in the organization, for understandable reasons. He didn't hit much before this season (.248/.320/.423 in Low-A in 2013, .242/.320/.359 in High-A in 2014 for example), but that changed this summer with an excellent run through the Double-A Southern League: .333/.413/.478 for the Tennessee Smokies, posting career-best marks in almost every offensive category. His relative rate of production was excellent with a wRC+ of 156, by far the best notch on his resume.

Given the sudden emergence you are excused for thinking this is a fluke, but there are some very important markers indicating that it may not be. Concurrent with the burst of power and higher batting average was an unmistakable improvement in his hitting approach. His walk rate was about 8% in 2013-2014 in A-ball but increased to 10.9% this year. On the surface that could be random variation, except the walk increase was combined with a much larger decline in strikeouts, his whiff rate dropping from 20% to just 11.9% this year, almost even with the walk rate.

A few more walks, but way fewer strikeouts, and done while adapting to a higher level. That's terrific. His home/road and left/right splits show nothing notable. His BABIP was much higher this year, but he's always been physically strong enough to hit effectively and the sharpening of his approach brought that to the forefront. At age 23 he wasn't too old for the level, about a year younger than the majority of his competition in the SL.

What about his glove? Contreras has some athleticism and arm strength and began his career as an infielder. He still puts in a few innings at third base now and then without embarrassing himself and also has experience at first base and corner outfield. Of course it is the work behind the plate that makes him most interesting. The arm strength and mobility seem fine there to the naked eye; he's had 1.85 pop times to second base, although his actual "throw out runners" numbers are just okay, hovering around 28%. However, his error and passed ball rates have improved steadily as he refines his receiving skills, and he's said to have the necessary leadership qualities to catch. Overall I think he can stick.

Contreras should move up to Triple-A in 2016 and we'll get another look at his bat then. Hitting .333 every year is unlikely, of course, but it seems quite possible he can develop into a .270ish hitter with enough pop and defense to be valuable.