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Contreras homers Saturday against the Rangers in the Cubs’ spring home opener.

How Willson Contreras could become the Cubs’ next serious MVP candidate

SHARE How Willson Contreras could become the Cubs’ next serious MVP candidate
SHARE How Willson Contreras could become the Cubs’ next serious MVP candidate

MESA, Ariz. — As confident as Cubs catcher Willson Contreras feels about his chances for a big 2018, he’s not predicting an All-Star selection, an MVP award or that he’s going to lead the National League in throwing guys out on the bases.

What he does feel sure about is this: He won’t lead the league in ejections, no matter what he said last week about Major League Baseball’s new restrictions on visits to the mound.

‘‘I just want to [make it] clear that I didn’t say I’m [ignoring] the rules; I’m going to follow the rules,’’ said Contreras, whose first reaction last week was to suggest the six-visit limit per nine innings wouldn’t stop him from going to the mound any time he wanted to. ‘‘I’ll make my adjustments, and we will follow the rules.

‘‘I didn’t know [last week] that when the game goes to extra innings, we have an extra mound visit. Now I know, and we’ll see throughout the season what’s going to happen.’’

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For a catcher who was among the most frequent visitors to the mound last season, Contreras’ initial reaction to the limit seemed like a threat to the major-league ejections record — and to his 2018 MVP candidacy.

Contreras isn’t thinking about things such as MVPs in his second full season in the majors, but that doesn’t stop others from thinking about it. Not after that torrid surge out of the All-Star break last season that ended only because of a hamstring injury Aug. 9.

‘‘Look at his game,’’ manager Joe Maddon said. ‘‘He plays that [key] position. He’s a premier thrower in the league — top three in baseball, probably. He blocks. He’s really good at receiving. And if he didn’t get hurt last year, he drives in 100 [runs] with a bunch of homers. So he’s all of that.’’

In 23 games from the All-Star break to the injury, Contreras went 28-for-90 (.311) with 10 home runs, 10 walks and 29 RBI. That put him on the fringe of the early MVP discussion in the NL.

‘‘I do remember a lot of people talking about that, just saying how I got hot in the second half because I made the right adjustments,’’ Contreras said. ‘‘But I was just focused on having a good at-bat and getting a good pitch to hit. . . .

‘‘Sadly, I got hurt. But I was able to come back [before the end] of the season and get to the playoffs.’’

He was eased back into the lineup about a month later and didn’t hit another homer. But his 21 homers still were second only to the Dodgers’ Yasmani Grandal (22) among NL catchers, and he was second only to the Giants’ Buster Posey in OPS (.855) and WAR (3.9) among NL catchers with at least 400 plate appearances.

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If he stays healthy all year? If the Cubs do what they plan to do this season and lead voters to scour their roster for MVP candidates?

‘‘It’s not impossible,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘Just look at his game.’’

Contreras admitted he had some what-if moments during the offseason when he thought about the lost month and compromised finish to 2017.

‘‘Not just me,’’ he said. ‘‘Every player, if he gets hurt in that type of season, you’re always going to think about, ‘What if I don’t get hurt?’ But I was talking to my dad about it, and he said: ‘That’s over. Keep moving on and just think about next year.’ ’’

Contreras’ biggest, most obvious goal this season is to stay healthy. And MVP talk or not, he said the hitter the Cubs saw until the injury is the one he expects to see from himself this season.

Now if he can just find a way to stay away from the mound long enough to stay in all the games.

‘‘There’s always going to be a time where you have to do something like that, like going out for [visit] No. 7,’’ he said. “But we’re trying to figure something out to not go out there as many times.’’

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com


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