PITTSBURGH – Jon Lester and the Cubs find out Saturday night what life without David Ross might look like next year.
With Lester’s personal catcher, Ross, on the 7-day concussion disabled list, rookie Willson Contreras gets his first start behind the plate with Lester – and all the additional fielding and running-game responsibilities that comes with it.
“With Jon part of what we’re trying to do is control the running game, and I think Willson absolutely controls the running game,” manager Joe Maddon said of the strongest-throwing catcher in the organization. “And Willson’s a quick study.
“It’s something that you could absolutely see in the future.”
Ross plans to retire at the end of the season, which could make the Cubs’ most critical personnel decision before next season finding a productive catching fit for the pitcher who can’t reliably throw to bases – and has four years after this one left on his contract.
“Right now I’m just thinking about Saturday,” said Contreras, the touted catching prospect who has caught everybody else in the rotation except Jake Arrieta since debuting three weeks ago. “But from now on I know that I have to keep getting to know him, and I’m looking forward to being his catcher, because next year it’s gonna be me.”
Ross, who has spent much of four seasons paired with Lester, prepped Contreras on what to expect, giving the rookie a “tutorial” on the back picks, disguised pitchouts and bunt-fielding strategy that have made him successful catching the left-hander.
“He explained kind of how he likes to pitch and how to pitch to the Pirates, and I’m just going to follow the scouting report and see what Lester wants to do,” Contreras said. “I know he doesn’t like to throw to first base, and if I see the runner get comfortable and get a big lead, I’m just going to try to back pick. And if we know the guy is running, we’ll call a pitch to make me comfortable to throw him out or to keep him close to the base.”
And bunt plays? “That’s going to be on me. I’ve got to be ready for those bunts,” he said.
He definitely sounds ready. And the other pitchers he has caught, including Kyle Hendricks this week, rave about the quick progress he’s making with his game management ability start to start.
“I know Jon Lester has good stuff to throw a good game,” said Contreras, who caught Lester’s between-starts bullpen session this week, “and we’re just going to work together and try to be on the same page.”
Lester said he’s been impressed with the rookie.
“You see the passion he has,” Lester said. “And he wants to do well. You can tell when he’s back behind the plate he cares about his game. I’m looking forward to it. It should be good.”
Notes: The Cubs announced the signing of their top draft pick, Oklahoma State right-hander Thomas Hatch, among 21 players from last month’s draft that they’ve signed. The third-round pick (No. 104 overall) received a $573,900 bonus. The Cubs lost their earlier picks as compensation for signing free agents Jason Heyward and John Lackey. … Center fielder Dexter Fowler (hamstring), who started a two-day minor-league rehab assignment with Class A South Bend on Friday, batted ninth (as the DH) after a massive traffic slowdown delayed his arrival from Chicago. He walked twice, struck out and grounded into a double play in four plate appearances. He’s scheduled to play center field for South Bend on Saturday.