Contreras, an uber athlete with high-level offensive potential, battled for the reserve catching job in the spring. The team ultimately went with Jackson, telling Contreras there was greater benefit in him playing every day in Triple-A than riding the bench in the majors.
Circumstances change: Contreras is now handling the load much sooner than anyone expected. So far, catching coach Sal Fasano has been impressed with his star pupil.
“I think there’s a lot of upside,” Fasano told the AJC. “I think eventually he’s going to get better and better. I’m looking forward to actually getting together and teaching. That’s always fun for a coach. You want to be able to teach the ins and outs of that position because it’s so demanding. I’ve been pretty happy. He’s going to make some young mistakes and I know that going in, but I think the good he’s doing is outweighing the bad that I see.”
Contreras has showed flashes of brilliance and instances of inexperience. His first hit was an RBI single against the Blue Jays. A few days later, he belted his first homer as part of a multi-hit day, helping the Braves defeat the Nationals.
Then there are growing pains like Friday, when a passed ball in the first inning led to a six-run frame for the Phillies. An even better example was a day later, when Contreras committed two errors in extra innings. He responded by lacing a three-RBI double in the 12th inning, leading to a wild Braves win.
The Braves will ride with Contreras through his highs and lows. At this point, they have no choice. Whether they truly believe he’s ready or not is irrelevant. It’s his job for the foreseeable future.
“That’s what we have to do (stick with him),” Fasano said. “He’s our next-best available that has a lot of offensive talent, I think. He needs to come in and prove to himself — not so much to us, but to himself. We all think he can play. He needs to prove to himself that he belongs and hopefully he keeps striving to be the best he can. He’s a really hard worker. That’s one of the things I love about the kid is his work ethic and willingness to learn and how young he is, that’s kind of nice too. He’s not afraid to ask questions and try to get a little bit of knowledge that way. It’s an exciting time for me as a coach. I’m excited for him, too.”
Contreras’ teammates are confident in him. Ronald Acuna raved about his natural talent (”I think he’s going to be a superstar.”) Marcell Ozuna proclaimed he’d be better than his brother, Willson, a two-time All-Star with the Cubs. Starters like Max Fried and Ian Anderson praise his ability to manage pitchers.
His maturity draws strong reviews, too. Snitker likened him to catcher Brian McCann and outfielder Jeff Francoeur, who handled themselves like veterans when they were promoted as “Baby Braves” in 2005.
“He’s a very confident kid,” Snitker said. “I liken it to ’05, when we called up Frenchy and Mac. Those guys were wondering what took you so long to get me up here. I think he’s a kid who feels like he belongs here. That’s a lot of the battle for some of these guys, especially a young, talented kid like this who has a lot of belief in himself.
“He’s going to learn, slow things down. He has too much talent not to be a really good player.”
Fasano believes Contreras’ confidence was helped by his experience in spring training the last few years. Contreras interacted with big leaguers, studying them and performing alongside them, which aided his development.
Contreras still has strides to make defensively, as the weekend has shown. He’s long been lauded with his offense, and thus far, he’s held up that end of the bargain. But he defense, from a mechanical and mental standpoint, is a work in progress. This season will be invaluable toward improving in that area.
“Even just a year ago at this time, it was going to one knee and understanding how to try to receive and maybe steal some strikes while still being able to block and throw from those positions,” Fasano said. “That’s all mechanical stuff to work out, and he’s done a really nice job with that. Basically, he just got a new lease on life with a new setup and we gave him a lot of responsibility. It almost gives him that sense of, ‘I’m in charge. Let’s see what I can do.’ That’s a good attitude to have.”
The Braves feel they’ve positioned Contreras for success. He has Mathis on whom to lean, with familiar veteran Tyler Flowers on the way. d’Arnaud remains involved. His manager and teammates support him publicly and behind the scenes. Fasano is a highly respected coach who’s in his ear daily. It’s the perfect incubator to help Contreras realize his potential of one day becoming an All-Star caliber backstop.
“I wish I could look into the crystal ball and see what he’s going to look like when he’s even better,” Fasano said. “But right now, I’m just enjoying the step by step, going up the rungs of the ladder with him.”