Is Willson Contreras becoming the most valuable Cub?

CHICAGO -- Ask Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras if he likes hitting cleanup and watch his face light up.

"Oh yeah," he said recently. "I'm in the middle of things right there. I like that."

Contreras has been in a middle of a lot lately, as the Cubs have begun their climb toward first place in the National League Central. Catching more and batting fourth seems to suit him just fine, considering he's being leaned on heavily now that veteran Miguel Montero has moved on.

And Contreras is responding. The sometimes hyper 25-year-old is having his best month as a major leaguer, hitting .345 with a 1.079 OPS in July while throwing out opponents on stolen-base attempts at a 30 percent clip for the season. And he’s hitting .305 batting fourth this season. He's found a home in the middle of the Cubs order.

"Typically a lot of energy," manager Joe Maddon said when asked about what Contreras brings. "He has the energy about him during the course of the game. I don't want to tone him down, but you have to be aware of burning him out. But this guy might be different. He might just be that guy that always has that fire that's obvious."

That energy can be seen after a big hit when Contreras lets out a huge roar or when he fires a ball to first base, sending Anthony Rizzo a fastball that might rival one of the Cubs' pitchers.

If you can believe it, Contreras could become a part of the core of the Cubs as much as Rizzo and Kris Bryant already are. He might not be their caliber of player, but for the position he plays, he's every bit as valuable -- he's second in WAR among MLB catchers and has hit a career-high 14 home runs already. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Contreras has been responsible for about 10 percent of the Cubs' extra-base hits this season, the third-best rate among all catchers. He's becoming the complete package.

"He's come a long way," pitcher Jake Arrieta said. "He's so talented. He can do so much."

Arrieta should know, as he's benefited from having Contreras behind the plate this season as much as anyone. With Montero catching him, Arrieta produced a 6.56 ERA and had all sorts of problems with runners stealing bases.

Not all of it was Montero's fault, as he so eloquently pointed out before being traded, but it put pressure on Arrieta to make even better pitches with guys in scoring position. But after Friday's game against the Cardinals, Arrieta's ERA with Contreras catching is 2.99 this season. The catcher has gotten better in most aspects of the game.

"Willy has been through it," Maddon explained. "Willy has caught in the World Series. He had no issues there whatsoever. But he's still learning. Don't get me wrong ... he's very emotional. He's going to get upset once in a while, but he's really good at discarding it quickly, too. Eventually, he's going to mellow out a little bit, but hopefully not too much. I don't want him to mellow out too much."

That line a player walks between using his emotions to his advantage and them working against him is a fine one. Contreras has to be especially careful, as he plays a position that affects so much of the game -- including the guys who stand behind him.

"He is always upbeat and in a good mood," one veteran umpire said of Contreras. "He does have some youthful exuberance, and I do have to remind him sometimes that he doesn't want to piss us [umpires] off. Overall, I think he is a good kid and a hell of a ballplayer."

More than one person in baseball has said similar things about Contreras. If he can control those emotions a little bit more -- and refine some skills behind the plate -- there could be a changing of the guard at that position in the NL. Buster Posey and Yadier Molina might have some company among the league's elite backstops.

"His biggest thing would be continually understanding calling the game, and receiving, and it's getting better right now," Maddon said. "You see him block the ball, you see him throw the ball; it's hard to imagine him getting better at either one of those two things."

His blocking and throwing might be good, but Maddon isn't wrong about "catching the edges," as Contreras is 60th among 66 qualified catchers with a minus-59.9 Catcher Strikes Looking Above Average. In other words, he could have up to 60 more strikes called for his pitchers this season.

So there's room for improvement, but his big plays have more than made up for some finer points of the game that he's still working on. Maddon credited Contreras with performing "one of two key plays" on a recent road trip that enabled the Cubs to remain undefeated during the trip. With the bases loaded and closer Wade Davis on the ropes against the Atlanta Braves, Contreras blocked a ball in the dirt, preventing the tying run from scoring from third base.

"I knew I couldn't let that run score," Contreras said afterward. "We have to keep being aggressive in every aspect of the game."

And that's the part of his game Maddon doesn't want to tone down. What gets him in a little trouble once in a while is also what makes him great. A converted infielder, he burst onto the scene for the Cubs just a couple of seasons ago. Now he's a mainstay -- and he knows it.

"I feel like I'm in the heart of the team," Contreras said. "I want to play with that energy, whether I hit or not. We need that energy for the second half. It's going to be there."