2019 was a rough year at the plate for Mark Contreras. In 27 games with the Ft. Myers Miracle, he hit just .101. At Double-A Pensacola, he hit .210/.279/.381 (.660). He did start to display his power stroke with the Blue Wahoos, hitting 12 doubles, three triples, and ten home runs. He was moved up and down five times before sticking in Pensacola after mid-June.
Earlier this year, Ramon Borrego talked about the challenge of moving back and forth between levels during a season. Not being able to get into a routine, or once you do, you could be sent packing either direction.
It wasn't easy, but Contreras understood and used it as motivation. "It wasn't the best of situations, but honestly, it fired me up. When I initially got to Double-A, we had a series in Biloxi, and I was there for one series. I hadn't been hitting much in Ft. Myers, and I had some success that one week. I was like, that's where I need to be, that's the swing, that's the approach. I got sent down after that. I told myself I need to get back to Double-A because that's where I'm comfortable."
The experience taught Contreras another lesson. "That back-and-forth helped me understand the mental grind of the game."
As difficult as 2019 was for Contreras, he was great defensively in the outfield. In fact, he won a minor league Gold Glove Award for his glove work.
"Winning the Gold Glove was awesome. My dad always told me, if it's in the air and it's going to hit your glove, you better catch it. If you're having a bad day at the plate, you can't take it into the field. You can make a great play and change the whole energy of the game. Maybe not for you, but maybe for your teammates. You can change the momentum real quickly with one play, one catch, one throw. So I take that very seriously."
Contreras arrived at spring training in 2020, ready to prove that he could hit. He frequently spent time with the big league club throughout spring games and had the opportunity to work with the big leaguers. Unfortunately, the pandemic hit, and while Contreras stayed ready, hoping for an invitation to the alternate site, he spent the entire year at home in southern California.
"I hit every day of the week, Monday through Friday, with my dad."
Mark's father has been a big part of his development over the years. He coached Mark in Little League, some All-Star, and travel teams.
His mom played a huge role in his development as well. "My mom deserves a lot of the credit. She's there. She drove me to wherever I needed to be. Mom was the one that made sure I was eating well. She made sure I got the support after a bad game. She was always there to motivate me."
Things weren't always easy, though. I mean, his dad is a fan of the Cincinnati Reds, but his side of the family is all big Dodgers fans. His mom's side of the family is fans of Angels.
Mark noted, "We would go to both games (Angels and Dodgers), especially the Freeway Series. Lots of smack talk."
But beyond that, his parents instilled in him the work ethic that still drives him today.
"My dad was always there. Whenever you want to do some more work, let's do it. It was tough love, but he wanted me to live out my dream of being in the big leagues. He always took the passive approach of when you're ready, let me know. He wasn't down my throat. Tell me if you want to work. That's how my parents were. They helped me establish my work ethic. They were not going to tell me; you have to go hit today. You have to go lift today. It's like, if you really want to do it, you have to put the time in. You have to seek out the help, and let's go get it. That's how they were. All credit to them because they helped mold me into the person I feel like I am today. I'm always learning something about myself, but they helped me get to where I am now. Every lesson that they taught me, I take it every day and try to build off that."
It’s a work ethic that made him and his high school teammates during his four years at Canyon Springs High School in Moreno Valley (CA) stay late after practices to get more swings and more ground balls. (Side Note: Former Twins outfielder/DH Bobby Kielty went to the same high school, 20 years earlier.)
And it's that work ethic that motivated him during the lost 2020 season. For Contreras, it was a return to what worked for him in college that he feels helped him a lot.
"When I was younger and playing in college, I went from the college season, straight to summer ball, straight to fall ball. You don't stop. I feel like the rhythm that I had in the 2020 spring training, I wanted to continue that and continue to work on the things we were working on."
Mark began the 2021 season in Wichita. He played 18 games before moving up to Triple-A St. Paul. The 26-year-old played in six games for the Saints in Des Moines. But, Gilberto Celestino needed to be promoted to Triple-A in case he (and his 40-man roster spot) needed to be called up to the Twins. Contreras returned to Double-A and played one game for the Wind Surge (and went 2-for-4). At that point, the Twins called up Celestino, and Contreras was promoted back to the Saints and has been there since June 3rd.
In 19 games with the Wind Surge, he hit .269/.355/.448 (.803) with four doubles, a triple, and two home runs.
In 41 games with the Saints, Contreras has hit .260/.335/.562 (.897) with ten doubles, two triples, and ten homers.
Quick to credit those he's worked with, Contreras said, "When the season started, I had hitting coach Ryan Smith in Double-A, and he worked with me, not on the physical, but the mental side of the game."
He continued, "Getting to Triple-A, Borgs (hitting coach Matt Borgschulte) and Smars (coach Tyler Smarslok), they took me aside and said we really need to establish the approach now and work on a plan every time you're in the box. I've been riding it and continue to work on it every day because it will never be perfect. It's just constant working on it."
And, seeing the results certainly helps too. But what kind of hitter does Contreras think that he is? Power hitting (22 extra-base hits in 41 games)? Patient? Solid plate discipline.
Does he consider himself a home run hitter?
"I just hit it and start running. I've never considered myself a home run hitter. I know that I have it in me, but I'm not trying to hit a home run. I'm just trying to make some hard contact and put the ball in play. My thought every day is, let me hit four line drives, and that's a good day."
And now he finds himself one call, one step from the big leagues. He is also playing with and against players in Triple-A with a lot of experience, several major leaguers.
"They have a different outlook on the game itself. It took me a while to get used to. Get to the field. Get yourself ready for your game and do what you have to do for yourself, but also what you need to do to help win the game today."
His roommate on the road is Sherman Johnson. In 2018, he played ten games for the Los Angeles Angels. Contreras hasn't been afraid to pick his brain. "He was around Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani when he debuted, and he's helped me understand the preparation aspect of getting to the big leagues. You have to show up every day."
Already a strong defender, he has been able to learn from Keon Broxton, a great defensive outfielder with five years in the big leagues.
Contreras noted, "Keon is a great guy, funny, always joking around. I talk to him a lot about his speed. His jumps laterally; he gets to his top speed so fast. What's the key to that first step?"
He can also gain confidence by playing against some players with a lot of experience. "Every team we face has big leaguers, ex-big leaguers, or current big leaguers. We're playing against that kind of competition. So it's encouraging. We're facing big-league pitching every day."
Mark Contreras has enjoyed his time in St. Paul with the Saints. It's not the first time that he has played in Minnesota, though.
Following his sophomore and junior seasons at UC-Riverside, Contreras was an outfielder for the Rochester Honkers in the Northwoods League.
"That was fun. Meeting new guys. The competition was great. The success our first year. We got to the semi-finals. The St. Cloud Rox kept kicking our butt. They put it on us. Going back for another year was great. Playing in Rochester exposes you to a lot of excellent players from around the country."
He hoped to get drafted after his junior college season. He became a key bat in the lineup and hit .332/.407/.430 (.837) with 14 doubles, a triple, and a home run. He also was becoming a quality defensive outfielder. Not bad, considering he had been a shortstop throughout his high school days and transitioned to the outfield because a spot was open.
At that time, his coach asked, "How comfortable are you in the outfield?" to which Contreras replied, "If I'm in the lineup, it doesn't matter. I'd love to play."
"I proved to myself that I could play college baseball. You never know. Maybe I'll get an opportunity. When it didn't happen, I said OK, on to the senior year."
As a senior, he hit .366/.427/.558 (.985) with 11 doubles, eight triples, and two home runs. He had also had several conversations with scouts, including Twins southern California area scout John Leavitt (a veteran of nearly 35 seasons in the Twins organization).
Contreras noted, "It was a crazy feeling. John Leavitt gave me a great feeling when he talked about possibly being drafted by the Twins. That comfort. That trust. Hey, this could possibly be happening. He stayed in contact with me the most throughout the process. I was excited when he called me on the second day of the draft and said we might be taking you in the next few rounds."
As a senior in the draft, it's hard to know what will happen. You could be a senior signed, selected in the top ten rounds to manipulate a team's bonus pool, or you could be selected any round later.
On Day 2 of the 2017 draft, Contreras was at home, watching the draft with his sister. During the seventh round, Leavitt made a phone call to Mark, telling him to be ready, that the Twins could take him in the eighth or ninth round.
Regarding where he might be drafted, Contreras wasn't too concerned. "Doesn't matter. Take that next step. Get my foot in the door. Then from there, we'll show them again. I was blessed to be drafted in the ninth round as a senior sign, which didn't matter to me because I'm there, I'm here. Thanks to the Minnesota Twins for that and for making this dream come true. Now the next step in this journey is to get to the big leagues, and going through the minors has been fun. You learn something every year, even every day. I'm excited about the opportunity and to be in the position I'm in. Excited to be here, and we'll see."
Another goal? He is just a few credits shy of completing his degree from UC-Riverside in Business Management and takes a couple of classes each offseason.
Contreras has enjoyed his time in St. Paul. "The city of St. Paul is very nice. It's opening back up and there are some nice breakfast spots. I'm a big brunch person, so I love going to a nice little breakfast before the game."
He loves playing at CHS Field and the atmosphere of the ballpark. "The things they do throughout the game to keep it lively for the fans. It's a great fan experience, I believe. It's fun. The field is beautiful. They take care of it. The locker room is nice. We have everything we need."
Another nice feature of CHS Field for the players? It's 12 1/2 miles from Target Field. "We're 20 minutes from Target Field, and being so close to that… We know we're so close."
He has seen many of his current and former teammates get The Call, and not only is he excited for them, but he is also motivated by them.
"It's definitely amazing to see my teammates that I grinded a whole year at High-A or Double-A with getting their opportunity to be in the big leagues. Not just there and back, but proving that they can be in the big leagues. Trevor Larnach. Alex Kirilloff. Luis Arraez is one of the best hitters I've seen. Griffin Jax got his opportunity this year, and he's doing what he needs to do. Charlie Barnes just got called up the other day, and he had a great outing for his first start. We were drafted in the same year. I know there's a lot more that I've played with. Akil Baddoo is getting his opportunity. It's very motivating because it shows that they're getting the chance to show, I can be a part of this long term. I can contribute to the end goal here of winning ball games and having fun doing it. Just seeing them be able to do that and have success is very motivating, but playing alongside Larnach and Kirilloff in High-A and AA the last few years. I played with Arraez in High-A. He's doing what he's doing, and talking to him and having a relationship with him is very motivating. He always tells me, just keep doing what you're doing. Keep hitting. Have great at-bats."
What does it mean to Mark Contreras, being one phone call away from the big leagues, to get The Call himself?
"I mean, that's a lifelong dream. I feel like that's the cliche answer, for sure, but it just shows that with the work we put in in the past, we're going in the right direction. It would mean everything, honestly. But the work doesn't stop when you get there. What I've always heard is that it's hard to get there and very hard to stay there. So you've always got to be on, at 100%, do what you need to do to survive, and help the team succeed in winning games, whether it's defense, offense, pinch-run, pinch-hit. I believe that's where the actual work starts. All of this (minor leagues) is just prep for the main stage. Att the main stage, that's when everything counts. There can be no stone left unturned when you get there. You have to perform from Day 1.”
He added, "I want to have a big-league career. I don't want to just get there and bounce back."
Until then, he knows that there is more work to be done.
"I'm not there, so the goal is to take care of the What, and then the When will happen. That's the mindset I have. I can't worry about somewhere I'm not right now. I have to worry about today, the game we have today. One day at a time. I tell everybody. My goal is to get two hits every game, but you can't get two hits with one swing. You have to take care of the first one before you take care of the second one. That's just always how I've been. I can't worry about something somewhere I'm not because it can be a distraction. But definitely, the end goal is I want to be a big leaguer."
And he wants to see Target Field. He hasn't been there before, so if and when that big-league promotion comes, it will be a memorable, 20-minute trip.