At the one position where the Cubs don't appear to have multiple long-term options for the future, they may not need them. Willson Contreras broke out in 2015, and he can make a case for being the best catching prospect in baseball and for being maybe less than a year away from Chicago.
Contreras isn't worrying about accolades or timetables. For now, he's concentrating on improving his game in the Arizona Fall League.
"Communicating with the pitchers, getting better at game-calling and working on my strike-zone hitting," Contreras said when asked to describe his AFL to-do list. "I'm going to keep working. Those are a few things they told me to work on and I will do that."
Signed for $850,000 as a 17-year-old in 2009, the Venezuela native took a while to get going in the Minor Leagues. Originally a third baseman, Contreras converted to catcher in 2012 and didn't reach full-season ball until '13. He brought a career .254/.320/.369 batting line into this year after going unprotected and unpicked in the 2013 and '14 Rule 5 Drafts.
Suffice it to say that the Cubs will add Contreras to their 40-man roster this November. They named him their 2015 Minor League Player of the Year after he hit .333/.413/.478 at Double-A Tennessee, leading the Southern League in batting average and extra-base hits (46).
Contreras, 23, attributed his surge at the plate to getting his first extensive taste of Venezuela Winter League action last offseason, as well as to getting more playing time than ever before. He raised his career highs for games from 86 to 126 and for plate appearances from 345 to 521.
"Definitely, it was the time I had in Venezuela, playing with a lot of veteran guys, facing a lot of big leaguers," Contreras said. "I was talking to a lot of them and they gave me some tips that I put into play. And then getting the opportunity to play every day here, it was my first year playing every day. That was the big difference."
Contreras is continuing his strong play with the AFL's Mesa Solar Sox, batting .298/.370/.574 with three homers in his first 12 games. With his improved plate discipline and his strength, he should continue to hit for average and power. He shows a plus arm and impressive agility behind the plate, and he's making progress with his receiving.
Cubs hitters in the Fall League
• Cael Brockmeyer, C: A 16th-rounder from Cal State Bakersfield in 2013, he has no standout tool, but earns praise for his grinder makeup. Brockmeyer saw action at four levels (mostly in low Class A) this year, batting .251/.338/.389 in 111 games.
• Jeimer Candelario, 3B: Signed for $500,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2010, he's a switch-hitter with some of the best offensive upside in the Cubs' system and a strong arm to boot. Candelario hit .277/.339/.431 with 10 homers in 128 games between Class A Advanced and Double-A in 2015.
• Mark Zagunis, OF: Chicago had hopes of making him a full-time catcher when he signed as a third-rounder out of Virginia Tech in 2014, but he prefers playing the outfield and has the tools to make it there. Showing solid hitting ability and speed, Zagunis batted .271/.406/.412 with 12 steals in 115 Class A Advanced games during his first full pro season.
Cubs pitchers in the Fall League
• Corey Black, RHP: The Yankees drafted him in the fourth round out of Faulkner (Ala.) in 2012 and traded him a year later to Chicago for Alfonso Soriano. Using a 92-95 mph fastball that has reached 100 in the past, Black had a 4.92 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 86 Double-A innings this year.
• David Garner, RHP: A 2013 seventh-rounder from Michigan State, he can flash a plus fastball and breaking ball, but lacks consistency. Garner recorded a 3.72 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 55 2/3 innings between two Class A stops in 2015.
• Pierce Johnson, RHP: Though he has been sidetracked by a series of minor injuries since turning pro as a supplemental first-rounder out of Missouri State in 2012, he has shown a plus fastball and curveball when healthy. Johnson went 6-2 with a 2.08 ERA with 72 strikeouts in 95 innings this year in 16 Double-A starts.
• Rob Zastryzny, LHP: When he's at his best, the 2013 second-rounder from Missouri can mix four averagish pitches, including a solid fastball and changeup. Zastryzny spent most of 2015 at Double-A, where he went 2-5 with a 6.23 ERA in 14 starts.