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Despite his uncertain future, Willson Contreras still leads the way for the Cubs

Ryan Herrera Avatar
May 17, 2022

Willson Contreras had his hands outstretched and was looking up to the sky as he rounded third base on Monday.

Contreras had just belted a first-pitch curveball with the bases loaded from Pirates reliever Bryse Wilson into the left-center bleachers, putting the Cubs up by 8 in the first inning with his fourth career grand slam and providing the highlight of the 9-0 win. It’s a normal celebration for Contreras whenever he goes deep — and one that, as you can see from the above picture, third-base coach Willie Harris emulates behind him — so it isn’t something onlookers were surprised to see as Contreras finished his home run trot.

Still, hidden under that normalcy was something more emotion-inducing for the Cubs’ seventh-year backstop. That grand slam was also the 100th home run of his big league career, a milestone that — as caught on the broadcast — he just couldn’t help but get a little bit emotional about.

“It was an amazing moment for me and for the team and the fans,” he said. “It was just great. I was trying to enjoy the moment, every little second of it, and I’m really proud of what I’m doing.”

The slam, which followed his leadoff double nine batters earlier, also happened to make some history.

  • Per’s Sarah Langs, Contreras became just the 10th leadoff hitter since 1901 with a first-inning grand slam
  • Per the Elias Sports Bureau, Contreras became the first Cubs player in the expansion era (since 1961) to record a grand slam and another extra-base hit in the same inning

The one factoid he was happiest about, though, is this: Contreras became just the third catcher in Cubs history to reach 100 homers, following Gabby Hartnett (231) and Jody Davis (122).

“Making history for this team, it makes me proud,” he said.

Not that Contreras needed to reach triple-digit long balls to prove himself as a major leaguer. He’s long been among the best hitting catchers in baseball, so it’s just another milestone that adds to what’s already been a successful career.

“Seeing him do it, I don’t think that’s what’s going to solidify him in this game,” said Yan Gomes, who started behind the plate on Monday while Contreras played the designated hitter role. “I think he’s already done that. I think he’s already made his name, and it just proves even more what kind of a player he is.”

Contreras’ 100th career blast, however, is another reminder for Cubs brass that it could be in the team’s best interest to keep Contreras around for the long haul.

In manager David Ross’ postgame press conference on Monday, a reporter mentioned Contreras being in the same spot as former Cubs stars Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez were during their contract season. Bryant was the lone part of that trio to be elected to the All-Star Game last season, but all three were World Series heroes that helped break the Cubs’ 108-year championship drought and became franchise icons for their own contributions during one of the most successful eras in team history.

Nevertheless, none of the three were extended beyond 2021, and all three were traded in the 24 hours leading up to that trade deadline. Knowing now how those situations ended, in Contreras’ case, Ross was asked whether he would extend the 30-year-old catcher.

To no one’s surprise, Ross didn’t give a straight answer to the question — “Oh, come on, let’s enjoy that performance” the Cubs skipper said in response — but he did note that Contreras deserved to be talked about in the same breath as those former Cubs cornerstones.

“I think what I would say about those guys that were here, and I’ll put Willson in that category, is they’re championship-caliber players,” Ross said. “They’ve proven that on the biggest stage. He’s been a big part of a lot of winning here, and it’s because he’s a really, talented special player.”

There still has yet to be clarity in Contreras’ situation more than a month into the regular season, though he’s maintained all along that he won’t let a possible contract extension or his upcoming arbitration case affect his play.

Exactly a month prior to his grand slam against the Pirates, the Cubs were out in Colorado getting ready for the third game of a four-game series against the Rockies at Coors Field. That day, not even two weeks into the season, Contreras told CHGO how seeing what his former teammates went through in 2021 helped him develop a clear idea of how he wanted to handle his own situation this year.

“That’s something that I worked on, my mindset for this year, that things like that, they’re not going to bother me, because we have a really good group of guys,” he said on April 16. “It doesn’t feel good if we had a really nice group of guys and I’m thinking of myself, saying different kinds of things. That’s not me.”

At the same time, with him being one of the established veterans of this group, Contreras wanted to go out and show the less-seasoned players what it looks like to handle yourself the right way on and off the field.

“That’s the most important thing for me: setting the example,” Contreras said. “Go into my business right away. That’s something that a young guy (can) look up to, and that’s something that I try to do the best way I can.”

A month later, he isn’t just saying the right things as a veteran — he’s actually putting up types of numbers that the Cubs youngsters should be striving to attain.

It didn’t come right away, as following that pregame chat on April 16, Contreras went through a rough patch over the ensuing week. In 23 at-bats over the next six games, he recorded just two base hits and watched his slash fall from .389/.500/.722 to .220/.333/.432. But ever since, he’s been a man on a mission.

Starting during the Cubs’ 21-0 win over the Pirates on April 23, Contreras has hit 21-for-65 (even with an 0-for-9 showing in Arizona over the weekend) for a .323/.436/.554 slash over the stretch to go along with eight extra-base hits, 14 runs and 11 RBIs. In total, Contreras is hitting .283 with a .906 OPS (12th among qualified major leaguers and far and away the best mark among catchers) this season, in addition to a .226 ISO, a .401 wOBA and a 158 wRC+ (per FanGraphs).

“That guy is unbelievable, man,” Gomes said. “He’s probably one of the better players in this game, and you can see, when he gets hot, it’s not just like a couple of base hits. There’s no stadium that can hold him. It’s nice to have him on our side.”

And it isn’t just the numbers themselves that are impressive but also in the way he’s putting them up.

Prior to this year, Contreras hadn’t recorded an opposite field batted ball rate higher than 26.6% in any of his first six major league seasons. But heading into Monday, he sat at 35.9%, above his pull rate of 33.3%.

It only made perfect sense, then, that he smoked the first pitch he saw from Pittsburgh starter Dillon Peters off the newly-grown ivy on the right-center wall at Wrigley Field, and then followed that up later in the inning with his big blast to left-center.

“I think what has stood out to me is just all fields for him, right?” Ross said. “The right-center and then left-center, gap-to-gap is pretty indicative of how he’s swinging the bat right now.”

Despite not knowing if he’ll remain in Chicago past this year (or even past the trade deadline on Aug. 2), Contreras has still played with that same hustle and heart that has made him a fixture in the Cubs’ lineup since he blasted his first career homer on June 19, 2016. Now, 99 homers later, Contreras is savoring the moments he still has left in a Cubs uniform.

He said that, when he hit that milestone home run Monday, all he could do was think back to his long journey, from growing up in Venezuela to signing with the Cubs organization as a teenager to his winding road through the minors to finally getting the call to the majors.

“The whole thing that I went through in the minors, it came to my mind,” Contreras said. “The road is not easy, but if you put the right work in, you might get there. Today is one of those days that made me think of my childhood, where I came from, and it makes me proud.”

Contreras said he met the fan who caught his home run ball postgame, taking some pictures and trading a couple of balls and a bat to get his back. He was planning on giving the ball to his father, Wuiliam (who is in Chicago with Contreras’ mother, Olga), because of the work he put in to help Contreras realize his dreams of making it to the big leagues.

“There was a lot of calls during the minor leagues, a lot of frustration, a lot of obstacles that were in my road,” Contreras said. “But you know what? He was a support. Him and my mom were there all the time, and this is for them.

“They’re here. I’m glad that they’re in the U.S.A and we get to enjoy tonight.”

Regardless of what the future holds for him, it’ll be the moments like this that’ll continue to remind him of everything that’s gotten him this far.

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