Three games into this season Kyle Schwarber, one of the players I most anticipated seeing in a full season of play, was done for the year with multiple tears in his knee after a brutal outfield collision.
The injury may have been more devastating to fans than the full-of-depth Cubs, who essentially slid reigning Rookie of the Year and potential MVP candidate Kris Bryant into left, and improved their defense in the process.
What Schwarber provided last year was a surprise mix of power, patience and versatility. Defensively he wasn't very smooth, both behind the plate and in left field, but the bat kept him in Joe Maddon's lineup.
Above is Schwarber's full-season line in 2015, during which he amassed 273 plate appearances and hit for a .246/,355/.487 AVG/OBP/SLG traditional triple slash. Schwarber's big value to the Cubs is his offense, which is on display here. A rookie with 30-home run power that gets on base a clip 100 points higher than his average isn't easy to find, especially one that can catch.
That's where Schwarber's important secondary value was to Chicago. Joe Maddon likes to carry three catchers. He did at the start of 2015 before they traded Welington Castillo, and did after Schwarber's injury with Tim Federowicz. Schwarber was by far the best third option, a patient power hitter that could fill in at left field well enough not to panic over his sometimes shaky defense and bad routes.
Enter Willson Contreras on June 19. In a pinch hit at-bat, he homered on his very first MLB pitch. By June 25, he had started at catcher, first base and left field, a position he played only six times during his minor league career.
Contreras, 24, came up to big hype just like Schwarber. He was notably more advanced than Schwarber behind the plate, but still had a lot to learn from the Cubs' veteran backstops in that regard. Also like Schwarber, his bat forced Chicago's hand and earned him an early look at the big league club. Contreras won a batting title in Double-A in 2015 and in 54 games at Triple-A showed more power, the same knowledge for the strikezone and the same contact ability he'd displayed at the lower levels.
On top of this Contreras has thus far hit at a major league triple slash of .355/.459/.677. The small sample stunts what we can draw from his brief stint in Chicago. His recent power surge in 2016 is something to watch since his previous career high home run total is 11, set in Single-A in 2013, and he's really never come close to the .200 ISO mark at any one level.
That said, Contreras has been consistently above average in terms of wRC+ throughout his career and began transforming into an on-base machine with high contact rates last year, supported by his nearly equal K/BB percentages.
While the Cubs might not see this power output continue through October as with Schwarber, it is reasonable to suggest they could see Contreras adapt to pitching at this level and produce fewer strikeouts, a similar walk rate and a more solid triple slash line than Schwarber in 2015. That would fit what the Cubs sought to improve on after last year's NLCS exit — more contact, fewer strikeouts — by acquiring Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.
Contreras may not have the impact Schwarber had in 2015 as an all-around offensive force, but defense considered, the Cubs have essentially replaced Schwarber with a slightly different version of himself. It's just that this version trends toward contact and more advanced defense behind the plate, with the same versatility options the Cubs and Maddon love to have available.
The question moving forward for the rookie backstop is whether his bat will keep him in the lineup when he's not catching, or if his eventual regression lands him in a platoon role with David Ross and Miguel Montero. Looking at rest of the season projections, the case trends more toward a platoon.
Both ZIPS and Steamer project him to arrive at the same value currently, 0.7 fWAR at season's end, with Steamer seeing him as a slightly above average run creator in limited appearances, bolstered by a declining strikeout rate. Steamer and ZIPS lend credence to the suggestion that Contreras won't have the impact Schwarber did, but will be a useful piece of depth for the Cubs down the stretch, especially if he's able to continue filling in for spot starts at different positions.
**Statistics via FanGraphs
Jerry Burnes is a contributor Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @jerryburnes.