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.”