Played here

Former Smokies star Contreras repeats as NL All-Star

Willson Contreras, chosen as the starting catcher for the National League All-Star team, was a standout for the Tennessee Smokies in 2015, batting .333 in 126 games. (photo by Mike Morrow)

Willson Contreras made a walloping 521 plate appearances for the Tennessee Smokies in 2015, an astounding figure for a minor league season, especially given that he played 75 games as a catcher.

That catcher just made the National League All-Star team for the second straight year. He will represent the Chicago Cubs as one of the starters in the July 9 game in Cleveland, as voted on by the fans and revealed Thursday night.

Contreras, from Venezuela, got 44.6 percent of the vote, topping the other two National League catcher finalists Brian McCann of the Braves at 33.0 percent and Yasmani Grandal of the Brewers with 22.4 percent. Contreras is the first Cubs catcher to start in the All-Star game two straight years since Gabby Hartnett in 1936-37.

And oh yes, he hit .333 to lead that Smokies team in batting. He was an absolute stalwart on that club that included other Cubs prospects Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Carl Edwards Jr. The team also included Daniel Vogelbach, who might make the All-Star team this year as a reserve representing the Seattle Mariners.

Contreras will join another former Tennessee Smoky, Javier Baez, who will start at shortstop after being selected the starting second baseman a year ago. Baez played 54 games for Tennessee in 2013, batting .294.

Contreras had 217 total bases for the Smokies in that 2015 season, including 34 doubles. It was the only year he played in Tennessee. He played in 126 of the team’s 139 games that year. He also led the club in on-base percentage at .413. The team finished 76-63, for third place, 1 1/2 games behind Southern League North Division champ Montgomery and 1/2 game behind second-place Chattanooga.

He was part of a group the Cubs were grooming into the World Series champions of 2016.

This year, Contreras is batting .300 with 17 home runs and 48 RBIs. The Cubs are clinging to first place in the highly competitive National League Central, going into Thursday night’s games one game ahead of the Brewers.

The All-Star selection comes three days after Contreras had a dust-up with Atlanta Braves catcher Tyler Flowers, with some jawing that emptied both benches. The Cubs and the Braves are the only National League teams with two players making the starting lineup, with first baseman Freddie Freeman and outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. making the team for Atlanta. If there is any bad blood remaining from their recent series, it comes with the oddity that they will all be teammates in Cleveland.

And Contreras has a brother, William, in the Braves’ minor-league system.

Willson Contreras has been outspoken about the political turmoil in his home country, which has suffered economically after the regime of the late Hugo Chavez and has not improved under Nicolas Maduro. Cubs manager Joe Maddon has been an ear for Contreras outside of baseball.

When the All-Star tabulations were announced on Thursday, Contreras said he dedicated part of the moment to his country.

For now, he is also living a very American dream.

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