GOODYEAR, Ariz. — There’s a short list when it comes to the best catchers in baseball, and Willson Contreras has been inching closer to the top of it.
The conversation usually starts and ends with Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto. But because of his offensive production and defensive improvements, Contreras is considered by some to be No. 2.
What lies ahead for Contreras in 2021 is not only an opportunity to bounce back after a difficult 2020 season, but a chance to continue his pursuit of being the best catcher in the game.
‘‘I think I have the right preparation,’’ Contreras said. ‘‘That doesn’t mean that I’m gonna have success on the field, but I think I have the right mindset. I think my confidence is at a nice level. I just trust myself. I think whenever you believe in yourself, no matter what preparation you have, you’re gonna have a good chance of good results.’’
Contreras’ growth since coming to the majors in 2016 was a process. Talent never has been his problem, but controlling his emotions was an issue early in his career.
Finding that balance is a challenge for any young player, and it was no different for Contreras. As a catcher, however, keeping control of his emotions not only was important for him but for the pitchers on the staff, who rely on him to be a calming influence, especially when things go awry.
‘‘This is going to be my fifth [full] year,’’ he said. ‘‘I feel like I’ve grown, and I have a lot of respect. I’m just trying to be the guy that tries to lead the team, tries to guide the team on the right path.’’
Manager David Ross knows Contreras as well as anybody as a former catcher and teammate. As his manager, he has had conversations with him about being able to dial things back for his health and self-preservation.
‘‘We’ve talked about effort and things that are non-negotiable for me,’’ Ross said. ‘‘But there’s also times where we can de-throttle a little bit in some areas to protect ourselves [in the] long term. I’ve talked to him multiple times about that and taking care of his body and conserving energy, when possible.’’
The change was hard for the high-energy Contreras to make.
‘‘At first, yes,’’ Contreras said. ‘‘I’m a really intense guy, and I like to play 100%. That doesn’t mean when I slow down that I’m not playing 100%. It’s just a matter of being smarter, moving smarter. Which play do I need to hustle? Which plays can I jog? When do I need to block? When can I use my secondary positioning?’’
That self-preservation is crucial when it comes to making sure Contreras is productive offensively, too. He is an important part of what the Cubs think will be a deep lineup and is 8-for-23 with two home runs, four RBI and four walks in nine games this spring.
‘‘I believe him and [Realmuto] are the two best catchers in baseball,’’ said right-hander Jake Arrieta, who rejoined the Cubs this season after spending the last three seasons with the Phillies, two of them with Realmuto. ‘‘And that’s extremely high praise, and it’s well-deserved. He’s taken many strides, and I just love watching him go about his business.
‘‘Not being in the clubhouse with [Contreras] for three years . . . it seems like, to me, it happened overnight. This morning, after playing a night game [Wednesday], coming in and working out as hard as he did, those are not easy things to do, especially as a starting catcher, when the workload is so heavy. But I think the main thing I’ve noticed is how focused he is and how determined and dedicated he is to this baseball team.’’