19 for '19: Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?


We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: Will Willson Contreras fulfill his destiny as the best catcher on the planet?

A dream scenario for Willson Contreras and the Cubs: He puts it all together, stays healthy, garners NL MVP votes and winds up taking over as unquestionably the best catcher in baseball.

A worst-case sceanrio for Contreras and the Cubs: He struggles again while catching a ton of innings and all the talk of his "potential" is retired forever.

Both scenarios are entirely possible for Contreras in 2019. But if you're a betting person, bet on the latter at your own risk...because he's making a strong push for his 2019 to go the way of the former.

The Cubs' enigmatic and energetic young catcher is entering his prime and he has a brand new lease on his career after last season's struggles.

He is his own harshest critic, telling NBC Sports Chicago's Kelly Crull that he slacked off on his routine and fitness last year and believes he didn't deserve to have a good season.

"Everything is easy when you're going well, when you're not thinking too much and hitting homers and doubles with guys in scoring position," he said. "I was too comfortable last year, to be honest. It kills me — I was like way too comfortable. I talked to my family and my wife about this.

"I didn't do my best on my routine because the season before, I hit 21 homers and I told myself, 'OK, if you hit 21 homers one year, you can do it again next year.' But it doesn't work like that.

"This game taught me that you have to keep working hard like you did the last year and don't get too comfortable because you're gonna fail and fail and fail. We learn and we move on."

Contreras' power issues were magnified in the second half of last year (only 11 extra-base hits and 3 homers in 56 games), but he actually wasn't tearing the cover off the ball like he's capable of before the All-Star Break, either.

Now that he's learned a lesson the hard way and insists he's no longer complacent, what is Contreras capable of offensively?

Well, even with the power issues in the first half of last year, Contreras was still the NL starter in the All-Star Game...where he homered off Chris Sale in his first at-bat. Going into that game, the Cubs backstop had a career .278/.359/.480 slash line, which is good for an .839 OPS.

To put that in perspective, Buster Posey has a career OPS of .840 and Gary Sanchez is at .847 through his four years in The Show. During his career year in 2018, J.T. Realmuto posted an .825 OPS.

Of course, offense isn't the only area a catcher is judged on. 

Contreras rates poorly in several defensive metrics — namely pitch framing. He has an absolute cannon for an arm which certainly helps keep the run game in check, but he undoubtedly has room to grow as a receiver and game-caller.

Cubs pitchers — especially Jon Lester — have done nothing but rave about his abilities as a battery mate and he's been working with catching coordinator Mike Borzello to improve in every area. 

It's also worth pointing out that Contreras is a converted catcher and only registered 226 starts at the position in the minor leagues. Plus, every inning he's caught in the major leagues has been for a contending team where every pitch and every inning mattered.

Contreras certainly has the potential to take his crown as the unquestioned best catcher on the planet. But will he put up the production to match?

Only time will tell...

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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