PHOENIX -- We know the Chicago Cubs will be without their No. 1 catcher, cleanup hitter and hottest bat for some time, so how will they make it through while Willson Contreras is on the mend with an ailing hamstring? Here’s a survival guide:
Trust the veteran addition: The Cubs were smart in acquiring nine-year veteran Alex Avila from Detroit instead of just adding a placeholder at catcher. Team president Theo Epstein has often said it’s the front office’s responsibility to upgrade any of the 25-man roster spots, not just the front-line ones, and moments like this show why that belief is so important to success in baseball.
How much better must they feel having Avila in the fold instead of any of the other rumored catchers they were in on ahead of the deadline? Almost none brought Avila’s resume, which includes a .869 OPS with the Tigers this season and a home run for the Cubs. Bottom line: The drop-off from Contreras to Avila is not nearly as far as it could have been without the trade.
MVP needs to be more V: It’s probably unfair to rag on a guy hitting .309 since the All-Star break, but Kris Bryant has been kind of quiet since injuring his left pinky in Atlanta on July 19 and has posted a sagging .756 OPS since the injury -- with just one home run and eight RBIs. And his .220 batting average with men in scoring position for the entire season just doesn’t sit well with some observers. In any case, Bryant admitted the pinky is still bothering him "from time to time," but the Cubs need him now more than ever. Perhaps a break of more than 48 hours between games leading into Friday night will be the best thing for him to find that MVP form again.
Get Zo looking like Zorilla again: Much like the Cubs this season, every time it looks like Ben Zobrist is about to go off, he slides backward. But if you’ve been watching closely, there are signs he might finally be getting there. His early August returns look decent: A .292 batting average and .414 on-base percentage are numbers to build off, especially that OBP. Working the pitcher and garnering walks are his game.
“I definitely have my best ahead of me, but it’s been a work in progress,” Zobrist said earlier this week. “Now that I can do the work, in the cage, I’m stacking the important ingredients one on top of the other right now. I’m seeing a few small results but definitely not the way that I’m capable. It’s a work in progress, but like I said, the best is yet to come for me.”
Why could Zobrist be so important? Manager Joe Maddon might bat him fourth again in Contreras’ place -- that’s where he had a lot of success last season while protecting Anthony Rizzo. This year hasn’t been as smooth, but there are six weeks left and Zobrist has demonstrated he can get as hot as anyone for a month stretch -- last May he hit .406.
Manage the schedule: Manage really means dominate -- at least after this weekend when they play a tough Arizona Diamondbacks team. After that, the Cubs play 24 straight games against teams that reside under .500, with the majority coming at home. If the Cubs really need Contreras to beat the Cincinnati Reds or Philadelphia Phillies in the middle of a pennant race, they have bigger problems than his injury.