If the Cubs make another deep run into the postseason, No. 2 catcher Alex Avila will be lucky to see as many at-bats — 12 — as did last year’s No. 3, Miguel Montero. There might be a few scattered innings for Avila behind the plate, but why are we even talking about him?
No, there’s nothing left to decide when it comes to the catcher’s spot in the Cubs’ lineup: It belongs to second-year standout Willson Contreras, who couldn’t have things more locked down if he were Anthony Rizzo or Kris Bryant standing at one of the corners of the infield.
As many games as the Cubs last in these playoffs, that’s how many the 25-year-old Contreras should start.
“[If] he’s well, he plays,” manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday at Wrigley Field, where the team worked out in advance of Friday’s Game 1 of the NLDS at the Nationals.
That wasn’t quite the policy a year ago, though it probably felt that way to the veteran Montero, who had entered the season as the team’s No. 1 catcher. Contreras, who was called up in June, started five World Series games against the Indians. Jon Lester’s then-personal catcher, David Ross, started the other two. Montero sat and, at least to an extent — as he revealed in a post-Series radio interview — seethed.
But when Montero was jettisoned from the big-league club in late June after publicly criticizing pitcher Jake Arrieta, Contreras was able to move straight into, as he put it, “the heart” of the team. He could walk as loudly as he wanted. He could carry a mighty stick.
He just might be headed for the sort of status on the North Side as his favorite catchers — the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina, the Royals’ Salvador Perez and the Giants’ Buster Posey — have in their necks of the baseball woods.
“[Montero’s departure] changed everything,” Contreras said shortly after the All-Star break in July. “To be honest, it changed everything because now I know that I’m going to be playing every single day. And I have nobody looking [over my shoulder] at me the whole time. I have to be honest — everything changed for me.”
Contreras got so hot offensively that — despite missing 28 games with a strained right hamstring — he finished third among NL catchers in home runs (10) and second in RBI (33) after the break. For the season, he finished second on the Cubs to Rizzo in go-ahead RBI (19) and tied for third, one back of Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber, in game-winning RBI (10).
Against the Nationals, his defense will be as important as anything he does with his bat. Contreras’ electric throwing ability will be on display against a team that stole seven bases — four of them by Trae Turner — off Arrieta and Montero in June.
“If a team likes to run,” he said, “then I think we’ve got to be ready with the best team we can put out there. I’m ready to play 100 percent. I don’t have any fear.”
There was a scare in St. Louis during the regular season’s final week when Contreras took a foul ball off the plastic covering his knee and hopped around in pain for what felt to Maddon like merely an eternity.
But all was OK. Contreras remained in line for his chance to shine like never before.
“It’s really cool right now,” he said. “It’s kind of like another dream come true and another goal I had in my mind. “I want to take the team to the World Series. I don’t mean take like it’s just me, but you know what I’m saying? I want it to be my time. I’m a better player. I have more experience. I’ve learned a lot. And I’m ready.”
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