Why Cubs believe in Alex Avila when Willson Contreras goes down

Why Cubs believe in Alex Avila when Willson Contreras goes down

SAN FRANCISCO – Standing in the corner of AT&T Park’s visiting clubhouse, Alex Avila projected a sense of calm and spoke in a deep voice, reminding reporters that the first-place Cubs were still in a great position, even if they had just lost their most valuable player.   

The lasting image from Wednesday’s brutal loss to the San Francisco Giants became Willson Contreras grabbing his right leg while running out a groundball, hopping in pain past first base and crumpling onto the outfield grass.       

But whatever Thursday’s MRI on that hamstring reveals, Contreras hobbling off the field shouldn’t be the end scene for the defending World Series champs. A mediocre division is still up for grabs. The reigning National League MVP is still in the middle of this lineup. The rotation revolves around Cy Young Award-caliber pitchers. And Avila is an accomplished catcher from a proud baseball family with high-level experience.      

“We just got to pick up the slack,” Avila said. “I’m not sure how long, but that’s part of the game. Unfortunately, you play hard and sometimes you get hurt, and you have to deal with injuries.”

Before Avila’s dad, Al, the Detroit Tigers general manager, packaged him with lefty reliever Justin Wilson in a deal before the July 31 deadline, the Cubs looked into a group of catchers and figured they would only need someone to play once, maybe twice a week.     

“It’s a luxury,” pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “It’s a good thing we got him now. He’s solid back there.”

The Cubs had questions about Avila’s defense and how well he would work within their system. But a creative front office that prides itself on being thorough can also overanalyze things at times, talking with the Tigers for about a month before finalizing a deal that essentially cost them a talented Triple-A player (Jeimer Candelario) who didn’t fit into their plans and struggled during his brief appearances in the big leagues.

Avila worked with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer during Cy Young Award seasons in Detroit and caught Chris Sale and Jose Quintana last year with the White Sox. Avila made the American League All-Star team in 2011, the beginning of a run where the Tigers won four straight division titles and he played in eight postseason series.

“I’ve caught most of the guys already and I feel comfortable with most of them already,” Avila said. “It usually doesn’t take me too long to feel pretty comfortable with a pitcher back there, as far as receiving. Overall – as far as the game-planning and everything like that – it’s been not that much different than I’m used to. It’s been a smooth transition.”

The most pressing issue for Avila will be establishing a working relationship with Jon Lester, who had personal catcher David Ross around to help minimize his throwing issues during the first two seasons of his $155 million megadeal.

Contreras didn’t know all the emotional buttons to push with Lester, but he did have a rocket arm that controlled the running game. That will be a storyline during Lester’s closely watched start against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Saturday at Chase Field.  

“The biggest thing now is going to be Jonny Lester, the involvement with the new catcher,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s going to be the difference. I have a lot of faith. I’ve liked what Alex has done so far, watching him and watching his method behind the plate. He’s actually thrown the ball really well, too. There’s a lot to like there.”

In the middle of his first full season in the big leagues, Contreras emerged as the hitter other teams really needed to be careful with. Avila’s production is more matchup-driven as a left-handed hitter who kills right-handed pitching, putting up 11 homers and an .869 overall OPS in 77 games with the Tigers this season.

Avila is new here, but he grew up in this business and instinctively understands the next-man-up attitude when something like this happens to a dynamic player like Contreras.    

“He’s a huge part of our team,” Avila said. “Hopefully, he gets back as quickly as possible. We’ll just have to figure out how to pick up the slack from here throughout the lineup and find a way to get some runs across the board and get a little consistency on the offensive side.”

Willson Contreras' bat-flip game is already in midseason form

Willson Contreras' bat-flip game is already in midseason form

The MLB regular season is still 13 days away, but Willson Contreras is ready for the swings to count.

The Cubs catcher hit an absolute bomb of a homer Friday afternoon off White Sox pitcher Reynaldo Lopez, but it wasn't just a homer.

Contreras put an exclamation mark on the dinger (his third of the spring and the second this week) with an A+ bat flip:

I'm not sure what's more majestic: The 450-foot shot or the 45-foot bat-flip.

Either way, Contreras is ready for those 2018 NL MVP votes.

Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback


Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

San Francisco Giants

2017 record: 64-98, last place in NL West

Offseason additions: Andrew McCutchen, Evan Longoria, Austin Jackson, Gregor Blanco, Tony Watson, Julian Fernandez

Offseason departures: Michael Morse, Matt Cain, Matt Moore, Denard Span, Kyle Crick, Christian Arroyo

X-factor: Brandon Belt

The trades for Longoria and McCutchen are going to get all the attention, but the Giants are sort of acquiring Belt, too. 

Their sweet-swining lefty first baseman only appeared in 104 games in 2017, missing the last few weeks of the season with a bad concussion. When he was on the field, he led the team in both homers (18) and walks (66) despite just 451 plate appearances. 

Belt has turned into one of the most patient hitters in the game and if he is able to stay healthy for a full season, would slot in perfectly in the 2-hole ahead of McCutchen, Longoria and Buster Posey. 

Projected lineup

1. Joe Panik - 2B
2. Brandon Belt - 1B
3. Andrew McCutchen - RF
4. Buster Posey - C
5. Evan Longoria - 3B
6. Hunter Pence - LF
7. Brandon Crawford - SS
8. Austin Jackson - CF

Projected rotation

1. Madison Bumgarner
2. Johnny Cueto
3. Jeff Samardzija
4. Ty Blach
5. Chris Stratton


The Giants tied for the worst record in Major League Baseball in 2017, surprising many around the league. Absolutely nothing went right for the team, from a lack of power on the field (Belt missed a third of the season and still led the team in homers), injuries (Bumgarner only made 17 starts) and general ineffectiveness (Mark Melancon).

But the Giants are a team that excels in even years, though the Cubs may have broken that juju by knocking San Fran out of the NLDS in 2016.

Still, between the return to health of key players and some big moves that improved the lineup, this team is primed for a return to form.

Watson is a nice piece at the back end of the bullpen and bet on a rebound from Melancon, who was one of the best late-inning relievers in the game from 2013-16 (1.80 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 147 saves).

Expect more out of the rotation with Bumgarner and Cueto a dynamic 1-2 punch. Cubs fans are familiar with what Samardzija can do if he gets on a role, too.

It seems crazy to pick the Giants to finish higher than the Diamondbacks, but they still have the same core of players from the championship years and have a much-improved roster.

Prediction: Second place in NL West, wild-card team

Complete opposition research

San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Franciso Giants