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.”

CubsTalk Podcast: How new coaching staff will help ensure Maddon's tactics won't get stale

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USA TODAY

CubsTalk Podcast: How new coaching staff will help ensure Maddon's tactics won't get stale

ESPN’s Jesse Rogers stops by the CubsTalk Podcast to chat with Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki about his new book on Joe Maddon. The trio also debate whether Maddon’s tactics get stale and how the new coaching staff will affect the season.

Plus, who should hit leadoff? Fans are all in on Albert Almora Jr., but that might not be the best option. And whose side do you take in the Willson Contreras-Yadier Molina tiff?

Listen to the entire podcast here:

Who should lead off for Cubs in 2018?

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USA TODAY

Who should lead off for Cubs in 2018?

The Cubs' offseason has been hyperfocused on pitching, pitching and more pitching.

But what about the offense? Specifically: Who's going to hit leadoff for the 2018 Cubs?

That question seems to be one of the hot topics surrounding the team as they strive to make Even Year Magic a Chicago thing and win another World Series in 2018.

Before we get into who SHOULD lead off, I'll tell you who shouldn't: Albert Almora Jr., who is a popular choice among fans to fill in for the ghost of Dexter Fowler atop the order.

That's not a knock on the young outfielder, who seems primed for a breakout in 2018 when he should be playing on a regular basis and seeing a lot more time against right-handed pitching. 

This will only be Almora's second full season in the big leagues and given he was in a platoon for most of last year, he still only has 411 career plate appearances in the majors. 

So he's not much more experienced than Kyle Schwarber was when he was penciled into the leadoff spot for the Cubs to kick off 2017 and we all know how that experiment went. Leading off is a tough position to put players in, especially those that are still growing in their big-league skin.

Plus, Almora simply doesn't see enough pitches. He swings at the first pitch often (more than 11 percent of the time) and saw only 3.45 pitches per plate appearance in 2017. That mark was good for 29th on the Cubs behind eight pitchers (Dylan Floro, Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Eddie Butler, Jose Quintana, Jake Arrieta and Hector Rondon), though the pitchers obviously have a small sample size of plate appearances.

Still, that's a shockingly small number for a position player. Almora would've been tied for 143rd out of 145 position players in baseball in pitches per plate appearance if he had enough at-bats to qualify.

But as for who SHOULD lead off, my choice is Ian Happ, though I would like to see Kris Bryant get some run up there and maybe even another Anthony Rizzo stint as "The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All Time."

Here are my Top 5 suggestions if Joe Maddon were writing out the lineup today:

1. Ian Happ
2. Kris Bryant
3. Ben Zobrist
4. Jason Heyward
5. Anthony Rizzo

Here's more on the reasoning behind that:

Hot Stove - Cubs Leadoff Hitters/2021 White Sox Predictions

Who should be the Opening Day leadoff man for the Cubs? What will the 2021 White Sox lineup and rotation look like? We make our predictions and want to hear yours NOW on Hot Stove Live!

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Wednesday, January 17, 2018