PHOENIX – The revolving door of catchers for the Milwaukee Brewers used to be in constant motion. Every spring, fans who made the trek to American Family Fields of Phoenix to watch the Brew Crew have witnessed an array of players crouch behind the plate. All were solid, none of them spectacular.
This spring, the revolving door has slowed. William Contreras is the Brewers’ backstop and already the 2023 season feels different.
Since catcher Jonathan Lucroy left the Milwaukee Brewers in 2016, the Brew Crew have struggled to find consistency behind the plate. The Brewers have gone through six catchers who played more than 100 games in the last six years, the same amount of years Lucroy commanded the backstop for the team.
Through that stretch, the Brewers have had decent players at the position, but nobody grabbed the reins for the long term. The list of former catchers includes Omar Narvaez, who recently joined the Mets this offseason after three seasons with the Brewers, and current Chicago White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal, who had one year in Milwaukee.
There also was the combination of Manny Piña and Eric Kratz, who split catching duties for the 2018 team that made it to the National League Championship Series before losing in seven games. Piña plays in Oakland now with the Athletics, while Kratz is out of the league.
Current Brewers catcher Victor Caratini split time with Narvaez last season, playing 90 games in the catcher’s gear compared to 83 for Narvaez. However, both players didn’t make much of a difference for Milwaukee, integrating into less than a win above average (0.7).
The Brewers plainly needed to make an upgrade at the catching position, and on Dec. 12, they did.
In a three-team trade that included the Brewers, Athletics and the Atlanta Braves – who headlined the deal with the acquisition of former A’s catcher Sean Murphy – Milwaukee nabbed All-Star catcher Contreras from the Braves 12 days before his 25th birthday on Christmas Eve.
“We’ve added a player that’s accomplished a lot already at a really young age,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “I think when you add … athletes and players like that, you’re really excited about what they what more they can do.”
Contreras, who’s signed for the next five seasons, had two more wins above average (2.7) than Caratini and Narvaez combined.
Contreras played 60 games behind the plate and 34 as a designated hitter for the Braves last season, when he hit .278 while swatting 20 home runs and 45 RBI in 334 plate appearances, earning him a starting DH spot in last season’s All-Star game. He also helped the Braves win the 2021 World Series, which he says is his all-time favorite baseball memory.
Despite being traded to Milwaukee less than three months ago, Contreras has already found a place in the Brew Crew.
“I’m very happy to be here,” Contreras said. “We have a lot of great teammates and a lot of great players as well, and right now I’m just trying to enjoy spring training.”
Contreras has also known his fellow catcher Caratini for a long time. Caratini played with Contreras’s brother, Willson, for four seasons with the Chicago Cubs. Now Caratini has a locker next to the younger Contreras brother, and the two have bonded.
“Since I’ve been here, he’s (Caratini) been the one closest to me,” Contreras said. “He played with my brother so he’s someone I’ve known the longest in this clubhouse.”
Contreras also has a lot of praise for his new manager, saying that Counsell is excellent to work with on and off the field and that he’s very excited to have him on his side.
When it comes to praise, Contreras has received a lot of it from around the organization.
Catchers coach Walker McKinven hailed Contreras’ accomplishments in his young career that includes an All-Star appearance and a World Series ring before he turned 25..
“He’s really talented and has done a great job here so far,” McKinven said. “He’s got a lot in front of him. We admittedly asked a lot of our catchers, and he’s working really hard to get it right.”
McKinven is not only the catchers’ coach, but also the associate pitching and strategy coach. This position entails multiple responsibilities, such as game planning from a run prevention standpoint, scouting the other team’s hitters, and then pairing his intel with his pitchers’ strengths.
Game planning against Contreras at the plate last year was “not fun,” according to McKinven.
Now that Contreras is a Brewer, he gets the opportunity to play 13 times a year against Willson and the St. Louis Cardinals, who signed his brother to a five-year deal worth $87.5 million this offseason.
“Let the best one win,” Contreras said. “Everyone knows he’s my brother, but once we get between the lines and we say play ball, he’s my enemy.”
After a breakout 2022 season, Contreras only sees himself performing better in Milwaukee. However, FanGraphs.com projected that Contreras will take a slight step back this season where he’s expected to bat .248 over 488 plate appearances and play nearly 40 more games. The projection also has him hitting 21 home runs and still maintaining a WAR over two.
Both Counsell and McKinven project that Contreras will be just as good, if not better this season. More importantly, the Brewers finally have a catcher that they hope to rely on for years to come, as the National League Central division isn’t getting any easier.
“Sky’s the limit for Contreras,” Counsell said. “He’s got a really bright future, and has already accomplished a ton, but I think – and he thinks – he can do even more.”