Throughout the off-season, we will highlight players and staff weekly who stopped through Iowa on their way to making history with the 2016 World Champion Chicago Cubs. In honor of pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training, today's edition is a twin bill of C Willson Contreras and P Kyle Hendricks.
Signed: By the Chicago Cubs as a non-drafted free agent in 2009
MLB Debut: June 17, 2016
Iowa Cubs Career (2016): 55G, .353 (72-for-204), 16DBL, 3TRPL, 9HR, 43RBI, 28BB, 32K
It took more than seven years for Willson Contreras to reach the major leagues. Seven long years of hard work through the minor league system - longer than most players last in professional ball.
At 17-years-old, Contreras signed with the Cubs in 2009 out of Venezuela as a third baseman. He was slow to get going, spending four full seasons in short-season ball.
The converted catcher first took his spot behind the dish in 2012 and it was all an accident. While with Short-Season Boise, Contreras grabbed some catching gear and wandered to the bullpen to jump into the action. The Cubs' former vice president of player personnel, Oneri Fleita, took notice. He asked Contreras if he wanted to try his hand at catching. He said yes.
That season, Contreras caught 39 games and took down 47 percent of potential base stealers. It seem he had found his niche. Following his transition, Contreras finally began to climb in the Cubs' system. He made his full-season debut in 2013 and advanced a level every year until he landed in with Double-A Tennessee in 2015. Prior to that season, Contreras was a relatively unknown name. He had never won any awards for his professional work, nor had be been recognized as a top-prospect by any publication. He even swept through the Rule 5 draft untouched in 2014. It was all about to change.
Something clicked for Contreras when he got to Tennessee. His mental game and physical skills came together to create a menace on the field. Contreras went 7-for-14 in his first three games and never looked back. He stole the Southern League batting crown at season's end with a .333 average, the first Smokies' player to claim the prize since Joe Gate in 1978. He also added a .987 fielding percentage behind the plate and threw out 27 percent of potential base stealers.
Contreras was consistent throughout the season and earned Southern League mid- and postseason All-Star accolades. He was also named a Baseball America Minor League and Double-A All-Star and a Cubs Organization All-Star by MiLB.com. To top off his trophy case, Contreras was recognized as the Cubs' Minor League Player of the Year. He was added to the Cubs' 40-man roster at year's end and broke out as the No. 2 prospect in the Cubs' organization according to Baseball America as well as the No. 67 prospect in all of baseball.
In 2016, Contreras took another step up the ladder to Triple-A Iowa. Happy with the progress to that point, Contreras couldn't have anticipated just how memorable a year it would be.
Triple-A was no match for Contreras, who tore up the Pacific Coast League from day one, reaching base safely in his first 16 games. Throughout his stay in Iowa, he delighted fans with his skill as well as his energy and evident love for the game. Arguably, his most exciting venture came on May 30 against Albuquerque. Contreras went 4-for-5 with two homers, including his second-career grand slam. Through 55 games, he powered 16 doubles, three triples, nine homers and 43 RBI. He reached base safely in all but three contests.
The Cubs couldn't restrain him any longer. On June 17, Contreras got his first ticket to Chicago. He made his debut behind the dish in the ninth inning the same day and got a standing ovation from the Wrigley Field crowd. Two days later, he pinch-hit for Kyle Hendricks in the sixth inning against the Pirates for his first big league at-bat. Contreras came around on the first pitch he saw and drove it deep into the center field bleachers for a home run.
Contreras continued to hone his skills with the help of the best, veteran catchers David Ross and Miguel Montero, over the next few months. In 78 regular season games, the rookie hit .282 with 12 home runs and 35 RBI.
Contreras was a crucial part of the Cubs' postseason, appearing in 17 games and starting nine. He hit .256 throughout October with a home run and five RBI to help capture the trophy for Chicago.
At just 24 years old, Contreras has an alluring career ahead. He is expected to share catching duties with Montero in 2017.
RHP Kyle Hendricks
Drafted: By the Texas Rangers in the 8th round of the 2011 draft
MLB Debut: July 10, 2014
Iowa Cubs Career (2013-14): 13-6, 3.28 ERA, 23G, 23GS, 142.2IP, 133H, 58R, 52ER, 7HR, 31BB, 124K
Eyes weren't on Kyle Hendricks in April of 2016. Cubs fans were locked in on reigning N.L. Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant and a wealth of other former top prospects that were finding their places on the main stage in Chicago. By nature, Hendricks rarely draws attention to himself. Last season, he quietly claimed the fourth hole in the Cubs' rotation and gradually built a Cy Young campaign.
Hendricks put together an outstanding minor league career, though he wasn't in the spotlight. An eighth-round draft pick by the Rangers out of Dartmouth, Hendricks was acquired by the Cubs at the trade deadline in 2012 along with INF Christian Villanueva for P Ryan Dempster. The 22-year-old had posted a 1.91 ERA in short-season in 2011, while going 5-8 with a 2.83 ERA with Advanced-A Myrtle Beach in 2012 prior to the trade.
It took just one more year for Hendricks to reach Triple-A, moving to Iowa at the tail end of his 2013 campaign. After going 10-3 with a 1.85 ERA in 21 starts for Double-A Tennessee earlier in the year, Hendricks took on the PCL in August and didn't slow. Facing Fresno in his Triple-A debut on Aug. 8, Hendricks spun 7.0 innings, allowing one unearned run on four hits, one hit batter, one walk and five strikeouts. Through six total starts for the I-Cubs, he posted a 2.48 ERA while holding opposing batters to a .235 average. Five of the outings were quality starts and he tossed 7.0 or more innings four times.
Hendricks' performance secured his spot in Iowa's rotation to begin 2014. After a shaky first outing of the season, Hendricks transformed into one of the top pitchers in the PCL. By July, Hendricks was tied for the league lead with 10 wins and ranked second in innings pitched (100.2). That was when Chicago came calling.
Hendricks' contract was selected by the Cubs on July 10 for a spot-start against the Cincinnati Reds. He took a no-decision after allowing four earned runs over 6.0 innings while whiffing seven. He was optioned to Iowa a day later, but quickly returned in less than two weeks and never looked back. Hendricks finished the season with a 7-2 record and a 2.46 ERA through 13 starts for Chicago.
Hendricks was inserted into the Cubs rotation as the fifth starter in 2015 and contributed a solid season, notching a 3.95 ERA and an 8-7 record in 32 starts. He exhibited glimpses of authority on the mound, teasing what would come in 2016.
The following season was memorable for Hendricks, not just because of the Cubs' success, but also because of his individual contributions. The righty compiled an outstanding 2.55 ERA through the first half of the season, but got even better as time wore on. A 1.68 mark through the second half dropped his season ERA to 2.13 - good enough to lead the N.L. His steady demeanor helped him knock down batters with a misleading change up and a dangerous curve.
Throughout his dominant campaign, Hendricks was compared to Hall of Famer Greg Maddox with his deceptive pitching ability. Though he never blew anyone away with his 89 MPH fastball, he was undoubtedly effective.
Hendricks got the ball five times in the 2016 postseason and worked a 1-1 record with a 1.54 ERA. His only loss came in Game 2 of the NLCS when the Cubs fell to the Dodgers 1-0. At years' end, the righty was recognized as a finalist for the N.L. Cy Young award and wound up third behind the National's Max Scherzer and teammate Jon Lester.
This April will be different for Hendricks as all eyes will be on him. He has solidified his place in Chicago's rotation and will be joined by Lester, John Lackey and Arrieta on the Wrigley Field mound to begin 2017.