|Contreras (C) has been pivotal to Cubs this season|
The Chicago Cubs are the defending World Series champions, and entered the season as prohibitive favorites to repeat in the NL Central Division.
Things haven’t gone as smoothly as the team or their fans in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field had expected. The Cubbies struggled for most of the first half of the season.
Coming out hot after the MLB All-Star break, Chicago re-established themselves at the top of the division. Their most consistently productive player all season has been young catcher Willson Contreras.
The 25-year old backstop is in his first full season as the starter behind the dish on the North Side. He was slashing .274/.342/.519 with 21 homers and 70 RBI following Wednesday night’s game. Those power totals are second on the ball club.
But potential disaster struck in the late innings of that 3-1 loss to the San Francisco Giants. While running out a routine grounder in the bottom of the eighth inning, Contreras pulled up lame. He needed to be helped from the field with what turns out to be a hamstring injury.
An MRI on Thursday will determine the extent of the injury, as well as the length of time that Contreras is expected to miss. He could be gone for a week or so. He could also be gone for a lot longer. A stint on the Disabled List is a virtual certainty.
“He’s in good spirits,’’ first baseman Anthony Rizzo said per Bob Nightengale of USA Today. “He said he’s had it worse than this before [in 2015 in the Arizona Fall League]. He thinks he’ll be fine. Injuries like that, when you see someone grab like that, it’s not very good. So you never know. We’ll see.’’
Fortunately for the Cubs, they have a solid replacement ready to step into the breech. Alex Avila is a 30-year old veteran in his ninth big league season. He was obtained by GM Jed Hoyer in a deal at this year’s trade deadline.
On July 31, Hoyer shipped a pair of talented prospects, third baseman Jeimer Candelario and shortstop Isaac Paredes, to the Detroit Tigers. In exchange, the Cubs received Avila and Tigers’ closer Justin Wilson.
For many at the time, Wilson probably seemed the bigger addition. The 29-year old had saved 13 games in Detroit, allowing just 22 hits over 40.1 innings with a 55/16 K:BB ratio. He wouldn’t close with the Cubs, but as a left-hander, Wilson would become an integral part of manager Joe Maddon‘s late-innings bullpen mix.
But now it seems that Avila may prove just as crucial an addition, if not more so. With Detroit he was the starting catcher, and had a stellar .387 on-base percentage over 274 plate appearances. Avila also demonstrated some pop, with 11 homers and 32 RBI.
He certainly doesn’t lack for the confidence to step into the Cubs starting role, for however long they need him. “There’s nothing to hang our heads,’’ Avila said per Nightengale. “No reason to be upset. We’re in first place. We got to keep grinding away. Got to keep playing hard. We’re in a great position.’’
The Cubs are indeed in first place. However, their lead is just 1.5 games over Milwaukee and Saint Louis. The arch-rival Cardinals have been playing good ball for weeks. If the Cubs want to remain on top, the ability of Avila to effectively step in while Contreras is out is likely to prove a crucial factor.