Contreras must rely on own confidence
Trade leaves Cuban righty without mentor, best friend
TUCSON -- As White Sox pitchers and catchers sifted through fan mail and arranged gear in their respective lockers to prepare for the six weeks of Spring Training on the horizon, a lone figure jogged on a path leading to the Minor League fields behind the team complex Friday morning.
Jose Contreras was on his own, completing a thorough morning workout regimen, the same sort of program that has brought the big right-hander into camp at the optimum weight of 245 pounds. But the White Sox hope this will be one of the last moments of solitude for Contreras as the 2006 season approaches.
By all accounts, Contreras should be on top of the baseball world for his fourth season in the Major Leagues. Aside from Minnesota's Johan Santana, there probably was no pitcher in all of baseball who was close to Contreras in terms of 2005 second-half dominance.
Contreras posted an 11-2 record with a 2.96 ERA in 15 starts after the All-Star Game. He struck out 82 and walked 27 over 103 1/3 innings, giving the White Sox a more than viable chance to win every time he took the mound.
In September alone, Contreras finished 6-0 with a 1.99 ERA. He also produced three victories in the postseason, including the complete-game clincher in the American League Championship Series against the Angels.
So, why is this affable big man still holding some serious doubts for 2006, as some pundits predict a 20-win season for Contreras? Orlando Hernandez, his closest friend and unofficial pitching coach as part of the White Sox rotation last year, was traded to Arizona during the past offseason.
Hernandez's departure leaves Contreras to produce in a manner from which he has struggled to get his arms around in the past. He must rely on his own confidence and depend on his own immense ability.
"It will be difficult for me," said a forthright Contreras through a translator on performing without the assistance of Hernandez. "I'm used to looking to my left and having my buddy there and it will be different this year. What can you do? Just keep on going.
"I'm not sure. I'm confident, but my buddy had a big influence on me and helped my confidence level. I'm being very sincere about it. I miss my buddy and it's going to be a big loss for me."
With a somewhat wistful look in his eyes, Contreras admitted that his 2005 development certainly covered more than El Duque's support. He credited manager Ozzie Guillen and pitching coach Don Cooper for believing in him, pushing him to throw strikes and work with a presence on the mound. He added that fellow starting pitchers such as Freddy Garcia and Mark Buehrle both were of great help.
But in the next moment, with a resigned smile, Contreras pointed out that he hasn't known Buehrle and Garcia for the past 15 years as he did with El Duque. Buehrle and Garcia didn't share the common bond of being Cuban pitching sensations and then trying to find their niche in the United States after defecting.
"Mentally, he was an enormous help," Contreras said of El Duque's impact. "He understands who I am.
"He was a big influence on me last year and a big reason I had the success I had. El Duque was like a coach."
Guillen understands the effect El Duque had on Contreras. The same can be said for Chris Widger, who caught both pitchers during the team's first championship since 1917. They also believe Contreras is ready to take flight on his own, confident and centered even without his friend nearby, lending his encouragement.
"When Jose was on the mound, Duque was not next to him," said Guillen of Contreras, who turned 34 in December. "I know Duque is his friend, and it's not easy. But we are going to do the best we can to make it easier for him and to make him the most comfortable. We are open for him."
"I think he's turned the corner," Widger added. "He didn't just pitch well for a start or two. He did it for a stretch where every time he went out there the last four or five weeks, you know he was going to give you a quality start and you know you were going to be in that game. He's our one guy who can be dominating and absolutely shut someone down."
The loss of his support system seems far more upsetting to Contreras than persistent offseason rumors surrounding a possible deal sending him out of Chicago. Those Hot Stove notions stemmed from Contreras being the only one of six White Sox starters who is not signed through 2007, and the inability to reach any sort of contract extension over the past few months.
There was little doubt Friday as to where Contreras wants to pitch, as he stated that the White Sox are home and that he really wants to stay with the team that he loves and has confidence will continue winning. He quickly added that the contract issue will be left to Jaime Torres, his agent, as he focuses on the upcoming season.
Judging from Contreras' unbeatable closing kick in 2005, the 2006 season could be the one where he matches the huge advanced billing brought with him from Cuba. Contreras is not alone, as he strives to lead the White Sox to a second straight title.
Without El Duque, though, he just feels a little less complete.
"Both Duque and Jose have gone through the same trials and tribulations, and it was great the way they worked together last year," Widger said. "I just don't think he needs someone to tell him how good he is anymore.
"He doesn't need the confidence boost. He knows now. He thought it before, but he knows how good he is and he can only get better."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.