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This one has been a foregone conclusion ever since All-Star voting opened a month ago and Major League Baseball’s most recent update all but confirmed it.
But it finally became official on Friday night: Willson Contreras will be the starting catcher for the National League in the MLB All-Star Game on July 19.
“To be honest, when you start an All-Star Game, it makes you feel good,” Contreras said last week about the prospect of starting this year’s Midsummer Classic. “It makes you feel like you deserve to be there. You’re going to start the game, but at the same time, it means that you’re making progress in every area in baseball.”
The 30-year-old Contreras, who also started for the NL in 2018 and 2019, is in the middle of the best offensive season of his career. His stats this season are career-bests nearly across the board, including his 2.9 fWAR midway through the season that would already surpass his 2.6 from three years ago.
Take Contreras’ individual numbers and compare them to his peers, and they look even more impressive. Among the nine NL catchers with at least 200 plate appearances, Contreras leads the pack in average (.274), OPS (.890), weighted On Base Average (.389) and weighted Runs Created-plus (151) — among plenty of other noteworthy stats.
Contreras has also embraced a leadership role on the field and in the clubhouse, whether that’s in working closely with younger pitchers or helping rookies (especially those from Latin America) find their way in the big leagues. The value he brings with his bat and as well as those intangibles have earned widespread praise throughout the organization.
“He’s been terrific, obviously. He’s been like the one constant for us on our offense,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said on June 16, the last day of the Cubs’ 10-game losing streak. “He’s been good all season, and obviously, he’s been even better recently. I think that Yan (Gomes) and PJ (Higgins) have definitely impacted that. I think we’ve been able, for the first time in a while, to keep him off his legs a little bit, which I think has helped him. Nothing but positives based on his season. There’s no part of him that has the ability to not play really hard every night, and I think that’s what you need when the team is struggling.”
Contreras has remained that consistent presence at the plate ever since his team busted out of the slump to win five of its last six series. Even a 3-for-25 showing from June 19-25 was hardly a bump in the road, as Contreras responded with a .333/.450/.515 slash over his next eight games.
“It’s just called baseball,” Contreras said on June 26. “I’m human. I’m going to have bad stretches. The only thing that I can control is how good of at-bats I can get each time I go to the plate.”
Contreras hasn’t played since Monday as he’s dealt with left hamstring tightness, but that was never going to change the results of the fan vote. While David Robertson and Ian Happ are among those deserving of being selected to the NL pitching staff and reserves, respectively, Contreras had the stats and the name value that made it pretty much a done deal that he was going to get the starting nod.
“It’s always great to represent the Chicago Cubs in the All-Star Game and be on a special list,” Contreras told reporters in Los Angeles on Friday, prior to the the team’s matchup with the Dodgers. “We have a lot of Hall of Famers in there from the Chicago Cubs. I’m looking forward to having fun.”
So, when he steps on the field at Dodger Stadium, Contreras will become only the second catcher in Cubs history (along with Gabby Hartnett) to start three All-Star Games.
That is, if he’s still in a Cubs journey when he gets recognized during those pregame introductions.
Eight years ago, Jeff Samardzija was given the All-Star nod as a member of the Cubs for the 2014 event. On July 4 of that year, however, Samardzija was traded to the A’s. No longer a member of the Cubs but still needing to be recognized as an NL All-Star, the situation led to this cringeworthy introduction by Joe Buck.
In 2022, the Cubs could be faced with something similar.
Contreras is among the hottest trade assets on the market, and with the Cubs rebuilding like they were when they dealt Samardzija in ’14, Contreras is expected to be traded before the deadline on Aug. 2. Yes, there are two weeks in between the All-Star Game and the trade deadline, but that doesn’t mean Hoyer and Co. would wait until then to find the best return package for Contreras. So, it’s very possible that come July 19, Contreras could be the Cubs’ lone representative to the Midsummer Classic without being on the team’s roster anymore.
That, of course, is not what the seventh-year catcher wants to happen. Contreras has often stated his desire to not only represent the Cubs at the All-Star Game but to remain in Chicago moving forward.
“To wear the Cubs jersey at the All-Star Game, I’m proud of that,” Contreras said. “This is my house. This is my home. It’s been my home for 14 years, and I don’t think many players can say that. The first time that I got here was 2009. Nobody was here. I’ve seen everybody come to this club. Wearing the jersey of the Cubs, it means a lot to me.”
Three days later, during a postgame interview with Marquee Sports Network’s Taylor McGregor, Contreras was made aware that he’d reached 600 career hits that night. What he said in response showed how much the organization means to him in a nutshell.
“I’m really glad and blessed to get (my) 600th career base hit in the big leagues, especially with the Cubs,” Contreras said. “Hopefully, I can keep them coming and hopefully get to 2,000 with the Cubs.”
Has Contreras made sure to let those in the front office know that?
“I think the message was clear right there,” he said the next day. “Like I’ve said before, the Chicago Cubs is my house. This is my house. This is my home. Been here for 14 years, and I wish that I can be here for 10 more.”
What the Cubs do with Contreras over the next 25 days is anyone’s guess (though an educated guess would lean toward his time in Chicago coming to an end). For now, Cubs fans can take the time to celebrate another special player headed for his third career All-Star Game.
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