As Opening Day approached, Willson Contreras’ sixth with the Cubs, the catcher told his wife he got chills thinking about it.
“Once I stepped out there, I was almost tearing up,” he said after the Cubs’ win against the Brewers on Thursday. “This place is so special to me that I will always keep it in my heart.”
Contreras left unsaid the reality that Thursday may have been his last Opening Day with the Cubs. He’s in his last year of club control, and there’s been no movement on the contract extension front. Contreras said he didn’t want extension talks to drag into the season, but he left the door open for a deal at the end of the year.
Or the Cubs could trade him at the deadline. Or he could hit free agency. Or both.
As a policy, Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer doesn’t comment on possible contract extensions. But he did say that the two parties’ inability to avoid arbitration “has nothing to do with anything long term.” Contreras and the Cubs are headed to an in-season arbitration hearing to determine his salary this year.
If Contreras doesn’t sign a contract extension, he’s projected to be the best all-around catcher in next year’s free agent class. And he only started catching about a decade ago, after the Cubs brought him into the organization as a third baseman.
“He looks so natural, he looks like he was born to play that position,” Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “... You would never know that he was just getting started.”
The now-infamous story goes: Contreras was bored one day in 2011 during instructional league play. He spotted a set of catcher’s gear, so he put it on and headed for the bullpen. Oneri Fleita, the Cubs’ vice president of player personnel at the time, spotted him. The rest is history.
But it was more than just the positional transition.
“I was willing to put the work in, willing to listen, willing to learn, and that makes me proud,” Contreras said in a conversation with the Sun-Times this week. “Especially coming from a hometown [in Venezuela] where I didn’t know the language, I only knew Spanish. I had to learn the language, the culture. And all of that makes me proud and makes me happy.”
Now, Contreras is a World Series champion and two-time All-Star. In 2020, he was a Gold Glove finalist. In the first two weeks of spring training camp, Contreras made a strong enough impression on Marcus Stroman for the new Cubs pitcher to say, “He is this organization.”
Aside from the late arbitration dates, the Cubs went through something similar with Kris Bryant, Javy Báez and Anthony Rizzo last year, as they all faced impending free agency. The Cubs traded all three. But Bryant said Contreras didn’t need any advice on how to handle the situation.
‘‘He’s going to go out there and play with heart and passion, and I’m sure he won’t even think about it the whole year,” Bryant said. “That’s just who Willson is. That’s why he’s fun to play with.’’
All spring, Contreras fielded questions about his contract and trade rumors. And he did so with a coy smile on his face and a “whatever happens, happens” air about him.
“I don’t know that even I’ve seen him in such a good place since I’ve been here,” Cubs manager David Ross said during spring training. “He seems eager to lead, to set an example. He understands he’s gonna make a lot of money either way, I think. And the details get worked out. His job is just go play. Can’t control any of those extra factors.”
Contreras hasn’t always had this laissez faire attitude about his status with the team. When his name first began to pop up in trade rumors a few years ago, he said he took them personally. Now, he takes them as a compliment.
“We shouldn’t take it personal because it’s a business,” Contreras said. “And nowadays it seems more like a business than a sport. There’s a lot of situations – not only from this team, from different teams – that tell you that this is a business, this is not a sport at some point. It can go from fun to frustrating. But like I said, I’m not taking anything personal. And as a business, they’re going to do whatever they think is best for the team.”
Contreras didn’t seem to be dwelling on any of that as game time approached Thursday. He made sure to take in Wrigley Field, with his family in the stands and full capacity allowed at the Cubs’ home opener for the first time in three years.
“When I stepped out there, the fans went crazy,” Contreras said after the game. “My emotions were floating.”