CHICAGO -- After Willson Contreras hit a home run on the first pitch he saw in the majors Sunday night, Chicago Cubs fans must already be wondering how long it will be before the rookie takes over full time behind the plate?
If this were any position other than catcher, the answer might be right now. Miguel Montero continues to struggle on offense (hitting .202 with a .319 on-base percentage) and has thrown out only two of 32 base stealers this season. The Pirates swiped two more on him Sunday night, though stolen bases are rarely just the catcher's fault. Still, Contreras looks like a racehorse ready to take off, and all we’ve had is a glimpse of him so far. What will it take to make a more permanent change?
“The most important thing for a rookie behind the dish is to know your game call,” veteran pitcher Jason Hammel said Sunday afternoon. “You create that rhythm. Then everything else should take off from there.”
So, as good as Contreras is at the things we can watch and track with statistics, we can’t know for sure if he can handle the staff. We’ll start to get an idea about him when he’s behind the plate for John Lackey on Monday against the St. Louis Cardinals, but it’s going to take time.
“I like to throw a fastball a little bit so maybe a little less complicated,” Lackey said of Contreras’ first start. “I’ve experienced more catchers than the other guys so maybe I can help him through it.”
Lackey is notoriously edgy when he pitches, but he and the other hurlers know the quicker the 24-year-old learns his craft, the sooner he can help them. Too many “shake-offs” and a pitcher can be thinking too much instead of just pitching. It’s doubtful Contreras’ contributions on offense or his throwing abilities would make up for taking his pitcher off his game. That’s priority No. 1.
“Anytime you throw your timing off it can do something to the flow of the game,” Hammel said. “I think [starting on Monday] is the best thing for him because Lackey is a fastball guy.”
Contreras seems to know the relationship with his pitchers is of the utmost important.
“They’re veteran guys,” he said. “You have to know how to talk to them and ask any question you have.”
So getting more playing time might be determined by how the staff reacts to him. As much as Montero has struggled, he’s also been behind the plate for the best rotation in the league. Of course that may not have to do with him as much as the talent on the mound.
“You have to have some patience with him,” Hammel said. “It doesn’t come down to who our catcher is.”
So the keys to the Ferrari aren’t being handed over to the Cubs' latest talented young player, but he is getting a test drive. Monday is start No. 1 -- after that, it’s anyone’s guess. Performance -- his own and that of his pitchers -- will dictate the future, as it always does.
“The coaches have done a great job of prepping him and will continue to do so,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We’ll see how it plays out and continue from there. You’ll see him often. I promise you that. I have a lot of confidence he’ll play well.”