Cubs

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.”

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

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Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.