MESA, Ariz. – Micah Johnson once stole 84 bases in a minor league season, and that kind of speed is still his biggest calling card as a major league infielder with the Dodgers.
So nobody was more shocked than Johnson when he slid into second base against the Cubs the other night only to discover that the ball was already there, in shortstop Addison Russell’s glove, a few inches from the ground, right where catcher Willson Contreras had delivered it.
“The shortstop didn’t have to even make a tag, because it was right there,” said shortstop-by-trade Javy Baez, who watched in awe from his first base position that night.
One inning later, Contreras fired to Baez at first to pick off veteran Chase Utley.
“I think he’s got as much ability as anybody at that position,” said the Cubs’ catching coach. “He’s the kind of athletic, strong, strong-armed, powerful-legged, young catcher that you don’t come across very often.”
Last year’s Southern League batting champion also doubled twice and singled in that game. Then he doubled and singled the next day.
“We’re all searching for the perfect catcher who can do all the things we want behind the plate and also hit,” Borzello said. “Those guys are few and far between.”
If the last 12 months are any indication, one of those guys is a 23-year-old former third baseman with a vise grip of a handshake and, maybe, an even stronger grip on his place in the Cubs’ long-term catching plans.
“They make the decisions. That’s one thing I can’t control,” said Contreras, who should open the season as the starting catcher for Class AAA Iowa, potentially a heartbeat away from becoming the next homegrown core player for the burgeoning Cubs.
“So I’m just going to keep working hard and playing hard,” he said.
Contreras rose quickly in prospect rankings with his breakout 2015 season at AA Tennessee, baseball’s No. 67 overall prospect, according to Baseball America, and the top-ranked catching prospect in baseball, according to MLBPipeline.com.
“The talent is there,” Borzello said. “I mean, he’s capable of doing anything that you need done back there.”
The Cubs have stressed communication with pitchers, working with scouting reports and calling games during Contreras’ first big-league spring training – the last components of the job he needs to master.
And when it comes that, Borzello said he’s been impressed with Contreras’ ability to learn quickly.
“When he handles the pitchers, he’s thoughtful; he knows what’s going on out there,” said manager Joe Maddon, a former minor-league catcher. “This kid’s in on every pitch. Every pitch.”
Maddon said Contreras called a pitch in a recent game that the staff didn’t think was the right one for the situation. “But we didn’t care about that because the decision he made was based on the fact that he was thinking,” Maddon said. “I liked the idea that he was aware of what was going on. He chose that route. He wasn’t just putting down a finger, and I think that’s a good sign.”
Where does he fit if he’s as good as everybody thinks.
Borzello said he’d likely be on a big-league roster this year for a team in a rebuilding mode or with less catching at the majors than the Cubs have in Miguel Montero and David Ross (and Kyle Schwarber).
“We’re a team right now that you have to be 100 percent ready to go,” he said. “We want to make sure he’s polished in all areas.”
Ross said he’s retiring after this season. Montero is signed through 2017.
“When they give me an opportunity, I’ll try to take advantage,” said Contreras, who has seems at home in the big-league clubhouse. “I feel like I’m one step closer to Wrigley Field, to the big leagues. I feel like part of the team right now. My teammates are treating me like a brother. We’re like a family.”
Said Borzello: “He works as hard as anyone I’ve ever had. And when you have that kid of ability and that work ethic on top of it, there’s no stopping you.
“He has a look in his eye like he’s coming. He’s not going to let anybody stand in his way.”