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In appreciation of Willson Contreras

The Cubs catcher moves on, but we remember him fondly.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Willson Contreras, as you know, declined the Cubs’ qualifying offer Tuesday and so will likely be moving to another team as a free agent.

I actually wrote this article last summer when it appeared Willson would be traded. When he wasn’t, I decided to save it for the time, if it came, when it looked like his time with the Cubs was done.

Now appears to be that time, so here goes.

The first time I wrote about Willson Contreras was in 2013, when I went to see the then-Cubs Midwest League affiliate Kane County Cougars play.

This was long before he was a real prospect and more than a year before the Cubs failed to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. Any of the other 29 teams could have selected him in December 2014, but no one did, and that was no surprise at the time. He was coming off a .242/.320/.359 season in 80 games at High-A Daytona and looked like he was going nowhere.

Then he had his breakout .333/.413/.478 season in 2015 at Double-A Tennessee, was named the Cubs’ Minor League Player of the Year, and the rest, well, is history.

I thought you’d like to see what I wrote about Willson nearly nine years ago in August 2013 (and he was good enough that I put his name in the URL) in a recap of the Cougars game and players:

I was most impressed by catcher Willson Contreras.

Although Contreras was also charged with an error (for dropping a foul popup; the batter eventually struck out), he also made some really nice and quick plays out in front of the plate, one on a little dribbler where he threw out the runner with an accurate throw, and twice on dropped third strikes. Contreras is really athletic and has begun to hit for a bit of power in the Midwest League (.429 SLG coming into Sunday’s game); he went 1-for-4 at the plate (a single). The Cubs have been searching for catching prospects for quite some time; I think they might have found one. Contreras is 21 and should only get better both offensively and defensively from here.

Well, that one turned out to be more than right. (Incidentally, the only other Cubs minor leaguers who played in that game who made the major leagues besides Contreras are Daniel Vogelbach and Jeimer Candelario.)

Contreras dominated the league at Triple-A Iowa in early 2016. In 53 games he hit .353/.442/.593 with 16 doubles, four triples and nine home runs and earned a callup to Chicago in mid-June.

You know what happened the day he came to the plate for the first time, June 19, 2016:

While that was his first MLB at-bat — and he hit the homer on the first pitch he saw — Contreras had actually debuted two days earlier, entering as a defensive replacement in the ninth inning of a 6-0 win over the Pirates. Here’s the greeting he gave to plate umpire Gary Cederstrom that afternoon:

That’s somewhat reminiscent of what we saw from Christopher Morel when he made his MLB debut earlier this year, and Morel definitely has looked to Contreras as a mentor.

(Also — check out how young Willson looks in that clip.)

That’s what we, and the Cubs, will miss. I have made this point before and I think it’s important. When longtime players like Contreras (or, last year, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo) are traded, some institutional memory goes with them. I think it’s one of the reasons the 2021 Cubs were so bad after the deadline. Not only was talent gone, but a “team” was put on the field of guys who hardly even knew each other, much less played together. It’s taken until the second half of 2022, when the Cubs went 39-31 and looked competitive, for that concept of “Hey, these Cubs actually feel like a team and have an identity” to return.

About Willson’s career, it has been filled with high points and low. By the end of the 2016 postseason, it was clear that he had surpassed Miguel Montero and David Ross to become the Cubs’ No. 1 catcher, and the next year he hit .276/.356/.499 with 21 home runs — but also missed nearly a month after a hamstring injury in San Francisco in August 2017:

Contreras’ power numbers dropped in 2018, but he made his first All-Star team, a feat he repeated in 2019 when he hit .272 /.355./533 with a career-high 24 home runs and again in 2022, becoming only the second Cubs catcher to start three All-Star games (Gabby Hartnett, the other). He missed nearly a month again in 2019 with hamstring issues, something that cost him quite a few games this year as well.

Despite those injuries, Contreras was a force not only in the lineup, but defensively. Here are five minutes of Willson pickoffs — and this video goes only through 2019:

It’s clear to me that Contreras, who always plays with his heart on his sleeve, was being affected by the trade talk as the deadline drew closer. After a fantastic start — on June 14 he was hitting .279/.403/.546 (51-for-183) with 12 home runs — he hit just .215/.312/.326 (29-for-135) with two home runs from June 15 up to the trade deadline.

We’ll remember all of it, but especially the passion with which he played the game. No doubt, that will be missed by his teammates as well as Cubs fans.

There were legitimate arguments on both sides of signing Contreras to a contract extension, which now cannot be done, or to re-sign him as a free agent after the season, which is still possible (though admittedly unlikely). While those pickoff plays are fun to watch, Contreras has thrown out fewer base-stealers as he has aged. Since the beginning of 2021, he’s thrown out just 23 of 93 attempting to steal against him, 24.7 percent, and he ranked 30th of 60 qualified catchers in pitch framing in 2022. He’s 30 and perhaps his best catching seasons are behind him.

But, having the DH has allowed him to rest his legs while keeping his bat in the lineup, and that might make it worth having him around for a few more years. There are also the intangibles that he brings to the lineup and clubhouse. It rarely happens — Aroldis Chapman and Jason Hammel are the only recent examples of traded players who re-signed with the team who traded them — but I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing the Cubs make Willson an offer this winter.

And while you don’t sign a player because he’s popular and marketable, it should not be lost on this front office that many fans are already angry because their favorites were traded away last summer. Will dealing Contreras make that anger more widespread and perhaps cost the team money in lost ticket sales from fans who are fed up at the idea of another rebuild, even if Jed Hoyer refuses to call it one? What this FO — and its predecessor — failed to do is to sign its young stars to long-term deals while they were still affordable, as quite a number of other teams have done. Will they do the same thing with the “Next Great Cubs Team”? If so, who are the Cubs? The Tampa Bay Rays, only with money they won’t spend? Here’s hoping that Hoyer’s statements about spending this winter are true, and that doesn’t happen.

In any case, I was very happy to see Contreras in the lineup the Tuesday before the trade deadline so the Wrigley Field faithful could give him a sendoff, and they did that in tremendous fashion, as I wrote in the game recap. (Plenty of video in that link, if you want to watch it again, just click on the link.) That sort of sendoff is something I wish the Cubs had given to Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in July 2021.

Contreras got another such sendoff after the last home game October 2 [VIDEO].

More appreciation came after that game:

Paul Sullivan wrote in the Tribune after the July game of opportunities like that:

Not every departing Cubs star gets a chance to say goodbye the way Contreras did on a gorgeous afternoon at the corner of Clark and Addison streets.

Sure, Ernie Banks received a standing ovation before a crowd of 18,505 at Wrigley before his first inning at-bat — an infield hit — in what would be his final game Sept. 26, 1971. But most leave without the fanfare.

Most, perhaps, but one recent Cub got a sendoff similar to that one. Future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg got an entire pregame tribute ceremony before his last home game September 21, 1997, and then got more ovations when he was lifted for a pinch-runner after a fifth-inning double that afternoon:

If only all great Cubs could wrap careers that way.

Willson Contreras got his love multiple times at Wrigley Field as the 2022 season came to a close, even as many of us wished his Cubs career could continue. Perhaps it will. If not — thanks for the memories, Willson, and I wish you nothing but the best and continued success (unless you’re playing against the Cubs).

As you know, Sara Sanchez has been BCB’s biggest Willson Contreras fan throughout his Cubs career. She’ll have a tribute to Willson here at 11 a.m. CT.