The season of injury continues for the Atlanta Braves, and now with both of the catchers at the MLB level going down with injuries, the starting catcher for the foreseeable future will be the system’s top catching prospect William Contreras. While losing a key piece of the lineup in Travis d’Arnaud is a major blow to a struggling team, they have quite a solid backup option here in Contreras who came in at No. 4 on Talking Chop’s preseason top 30 prospects list.
William Contreras, the younger brother of Cubs all star catcher Willson Contreras, was first signed by the Braves in February of 2015 out of Venezuela. The 17-year old then went immediately to their camp in the Dominican Republic and debuted in the Dominican Summer League a few months later. Contreras quickly showed off the offensive skill that has made him an exciting prospect for Braves fans over the past few seasons and posted a 125 wRC+ with just an 11.1% strikeout rate in 190 plate appearances. A move stateside the following season wasn’t a huge challenge either for him as he stayed on track by putting up a 120 wRC+ while maintaining an 18.3% strikeout rate and improving his power numbers.
Contreras had gathered some attention at this point, but his true breakout season was in 2017 as a member of the Danville Braves. For the first time in his career he got the bulk of the playing time at catcher, and he improved himself statistically in every category in the advanced rookie league. He posted a .290/.379/.432 line with a career-high walk rate of 12.1%, a 15.2% strikeout rate, and a 121 wRC+, and also managed to improve his power numbers while also limiting his strikeouts. This performance vaulted him onto Top 30 lists and cemented him as the most exciting catching prospect the system had seen since Christian Bethancourt. He made his full season debut with Rome the next season and truly began to fly high at that level with a career best 136 wRC+ in 342 plate appearances. He hit 11 home runs in just 82 games with a slash line of .293/.360/.463. His walks did drop to 8.5% and his strikeouts jumped to 21.3% but he was also hitting the ball with more authority and was showing improvements on the defensive end as well. His 23-game trip to High-A later in that 2018 season was the first time he struggled in his professional career, though he did cut his strikeout rate, his power evaporated in the pitcher friendly Florida State League and only had an 83 wRC+ down the stretch.
Contreras came into the 2018 as the heir apparent to the catcher position in Atlanta, and he quickly put the late season struggles aside by hitting above league average in 50 games with Florida. His strikeouts went back up to 21% and his walks stayed low but he managed to show more power and earned himself a call up to Double-A on June 5th. Contreras’s overall numbers in Double-A were not impressive. He hit just .246/.306/.340 across 60 games, but was hurt by a career low .295 BABIP and showed significant statistical improvement throughout the season. Through his first 27 games, Contreras hit just .160/.236/.173 with one extra base hit. He then went on a tear for his final 33 games with a slash line of .309/.358/.464 and eleven extra base hits. His overall performance was well below the league median performer, but his late season number projected over a full season would have put him in the 71st percentile in isolated power, the 70th in strikeout rate, and the 87th in OPS. While this doesn’t tell us much in terms of ability - Cristian Pache’s .815 OPS that same season was just seven points behind late season Contreras - it does show us the improvement you expect to see from a very young player.
Braves fans sure have fond memories of William Contreras, as he had a key RBI double on the first pitch he saw in his MLB career last season. Contreras received 10 plate appearances last season due to d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers needing trips to the COVID list to open the season. He managed four hits and that aforementioned double. He fanned the flames of excitement with a fantastic spring hitting .350/.500/.650 in 26 plate appearances.
What should we expect from William Contreras?
There is immense optimism for William Contreras’s offensive potential. It’s rare a catcher comes through the minor leagues young and hits at every level, and while it’s not a guarantee of major league success it’s a very impressive indicator. Contreras can hit, as evidence by strikeout rates better than league average at every level, and he’s not just a guy who puts weak hits in play on low percentage batted balls. He has plus bat speed, hits the ball hard, and has a high quality of contact. Until his struggles early in Mississippi, he had a line drive rate above 20% at every non-complex ball level of baseball he played. His line drive rate of 23.1% ranked in the top 10% of players in the Florida State League in 2019. He carries a high BABIP for a reason and we’ve started to see him shift some of those ground balls into fly balls and pull the ball with authority more often. While his power numbers did suffer at the higher levels he played at, both of those were extreme hitter friendly environments and his numbers were still above league average. He has significant athleticism, off the charts for the position he plays, and the potential for him to be one of the top five offensive catchers in the game is there but depends on how well his raw power plays at the major league. He’s not Christian Bethancourt, this guy performs in games and shows up ready to improve.
That all being said, I’m not convinced he’s entirely ready for the MLB level. It’s hard to really know with as little information as we’ve gotten to see over the past year and a half, but it’s hard for me to put a ton of faith in a guy who only had about a month and a half of success at Double-A. I think he’ll be competent offensively and better than Alex Jackson, but we could see some of what we’ve seen from Pache in a guy that can be a bit overly optimistic at the plate and get handled by more experienced pitchers. I think he hits better than both rookies just mentioned, but don’t be surprised if the learning curve is a steep one and if the power doesn’t come until a year or two down the road.
He’s an aggressive player at the plate and his upper minor league walk numbers do give some concern that he may not be able to carry an on base percentage to his full potential, but as he matures and learns his approach, he is a player who knows the strike zone well and can recognize spin. He may come out of his shoes sometimes, but you have to appreciate the energy he brings and live with the fact that he’s going to make mistakes until he learns to harness that. Barring a trade, which I’m sure the Braves are pursuing in some regard, he will get the bulk of the playing time to figure that all out, and he has some great examples around him in guys like Marcell Ozuna, Ronald Acuña Jr., and Ozzie Albies who have learned to play with that energy. As well, having Jeff Mathis to mentor him is a tremendous help. He’s a guy who can provide the defensive guidance that Contreras needs and help him learn how to handle a major league pitching staff.
That brings us to the part of Contreras that could go a few different ways. Athletically he’s a marvel behind the plate and he has all the tools to play the position, but he’s still raw in some aspects of receiving and game calling and it will be interesting to see how far that glove can develop. Playing the catcher position at the major league level is a daunting task, and learning to play it is a whole entire different can of worms that will be a challenge for a young player. It may be too much to ask of a player with little upper minor league experience to have to learn how to hit major league pitching and a premium defensive position at the same time. He is not Evan Gattis. He can play the position and I don’t think he’ll be a liability, but he’s probably not at the level of being an average defender yet. Unless he’s figured out more than I expect he has on the offensive end, he’s probably going to be a below average player for at least a couple of months, and really that just has to be okay at this point. Travis d’Arnaud is likely to be out for awhile and unless the Braves make a trade they don’t have anyone else that can hit major league pitching. Forcing a player with 60 games in Double-A to start at catcher for a team that wants to win the World Series is a much less than ideal circumstance and I encourage the fanbase to have patience when he has periods that don’t look all that great. He will go on streaks of being fantastic, and streaks of being terrible. That’s the nature of the beast, but I do think we’re seeing the guy that will be the primary catcher of the Braves future and a very good one at that. We just have to give him time and mercy with our opinions.