MESA, Ariz.—The Mesa Solar Sox had just finished their Oct. 23 home game against the Salt River Rafters, with the players starting the long walk back to their clubhouse across the street from Sloan Park.
Along the way was a TV tuned to the final inning of Game Six of the American League Championship Series between the Royals and Blue Jays. A group of about 15 people made up of Solar Sox players, media, scouts and security personnel crowded around the flat-panel screen mounted on the wall watching the ninth-inning action. The Royals were holding a slim one-run lead and had closer Wade Davis on the mound. One more out and the Royals would move on to the World Series.
The entire group watched enthusiastically as Davis delivered a couple of nasty sliders (graded as 80s by the pro scout on hand) to record the final out. The most animated and ebullient of the group was Solar Sox catcher Willson Contreras, a native of Venezuela, who emphatically chattered away in Spanish the whole time.
“(The Royals) have two Venezuelan guys and a lot of Latins on that team,” Contreras said later. “I support those guys.”
Contreras looks forward to the time when he can be playing on the big stage like his fellow countrymen with the Royals. After the breakout year he had in Double-A, coupled with the success that his parent team, the Cubs, had this year, it might not be long before Contreras is the one being watched up on the big screen.
A marginal prospect in his first five years in the Chicago organization, the righthanded-hitting Contreras broke out in a big way with a solid season in the Double-A Southern League, winning the batting title in a .333/.413/.478 and ranking as the league’s No. 11 best prospect. It was his third season behind the plate after starting his minor league career as a third baseman.
He’s continued the torrid hitting in the AFL, with three home runs and a slash line of .302/.380/.605 at the season’s midpoint. Scouts covering the league have praised Contreras for his solid defense behind the plate, with sub-2.00 pop times, a strong, quick arm and good receiving skills.
Contreras believes the turning point in his career came when he spent time in winter ball in Venezuela last year, picking the brains of veteran big league players as to how to be most successful in the game. In talking with Avisail Garcia, Yangervis Solarte, Wilson Ramos and Hector Gimenez, the lesson was the same from each experienced player.
In general, they each said to Contreras, “It’s nothing different. You just have to be 100 percent focused and 100 percent sure of what you want to do.”
Contreras had a new mantra as he began the 2015 season—”Paying attention to details”—a phrase that he continually repeats during the course of conversation.
Part of paying attention to details is to consistently follow a plan at the plate. Contreras used a disciplined approach in 2015, walking nearly as often as he struck out. He attributes it to improvements he made in regular hitting sessions with Double-A Tennessee assistant hitting coach Guillermo Martinez. He said that before this year he would go to the plate, see the ball and swing at the ball, and didn’t have a plan at the plate.
“This year I have a plan,” Contreras said. “Every at-bat I have a plan. With two strikes, I just try to put the ball in play and that’s what’s been working for me.”
Solar Sox manager Mark Johnson, a manager in the Cubs system and a former big league catcher, also noticed the improvements that Contreras made this season, one that began with Contreras sharing time behind the plate with Kyle Schwarber.
“Willson’s always been able to handle the bat and has always been a good hitter,” Johnson said. “He’s finally found a really good routine—his pre-game routine, his batting practice, and his approach—he’s bought into really having a set routine . . . a really consistent routine that helps him out in a lot of areas. He and Kyle really pushed each other this year, which I think helped a lot, too.”
Catching can be an exhausting job and often slows a player’s development as a hitter. Johnson acknowledged it likely had an effect on Contreras at first.
“He’s kind of settled in and he’s more comfortable behind the plate,” Johnson said. “Anybody in baseball knows that’s a huge transition, going from any position to catcher. It puts a whole lot of extra weight on your back, both mentally and physically. So for him to transition to what he is now, he’s come a long way in the last two years.”
Contreras acknowledged that it took him a while to get accustomed to the grind of catching. Now, he likes where he’s at and his natural exuberance shows when he talks about being behind the plate.
“I love my position,” Contreras said, “I love it and I’ve got to get focused on the game. I’ve got to stay on the game. I’ve got to learn what the hitters hit, and what they can’t hit.”
Just to be sure he got his point across, Contreras added with gusto, “I’m so happy to be a catcher right now!”
• The 10th annual Fall Stars Game will be played at Salt River Fields on Saturday at 8:08 pm ET. The game will be broadcast nationally on the MLB Network. Rosters can be found here.
• Orioles top prospect Dylan Bundy got into his first Arizona Fall League game on Nov. 2, throwing seven pitches in a 1-2-3 inning and reaching 94 mph with his fastball. Bundy, a 2011 first-round pick (No. 3 overall), missed most of the last two seasons with shoulder injuries.