Willson Contreras returns to give Cubs another energy boost in division race


Willson Contreras returns to give Cubs another energy boost in division race

For all the mood swings around this team – and conflicting signals within the National League Central – understand that the Cubs doubled their division lead while Willson Contreras recovered from a strained right hamstring.

The Cubs held a 1.5-game edge on the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals on Aug. 9 when Contreras grabbed his right leg while running out a groundball and collapsed onto the outfield grass at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Contreras hit the optimistic end of a four-to-six-week projection and got activated before Sunday’s game against the Brewers at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs opened with a three-game advantage over Milwaukee and St. Louis.      

“We have a goal to reach the playoffs and then go from there,” Contreras said. “This is a young team that never quits. This is a young team that plays nine innings, 27 outs. And no matter what injuries we have on the team, they’re going to stick it out and play hard.”

At the time, Contreras (21 homers, 70 RBI, .861 OPS) had been performing like someone who would get votes on the bottom half of the NL MVP ballot. In the meantime, the Cubs watched their top starting pitchers (Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta) walk off the field in the middle of starts with injuries, and kept waiting for All-Star shortstop Addison Russell (strained right foot/plantar fasciitis) to come off the disabled list.  

“(It’s) guys understanding their roles,” catcher Alex Avila said, “and the fact that when guys went down, it doesn’t have to be one person that has to do everything, just as long as you have contributions from everybody.

“Even guys just going into the game late – whether you’re pinch-running or pinch-hitting – all those types of things play (into that and) pick up the team when quite a few guys are injured.”

When the Cubs executed the Justin Wilson deal with the Detroit Tigers before the July 31 deadline, the assumption was Avila would be a backup who might play once a week while Contreras continued to established himself as one of the best two-way catchers in the game.    

But the Cubs are always trying to think through worst-case scenarios and prepare accordingly. During the time Contreras spent on the disabled list, Avila hit .281 (18-for-64) with two homers and 14 RBI in 22 games.

So the Cubs will certainly take Contreras and his rocket arm, powerful swing and boundless energy. But near the end of an unexpected division race, that depth might ultimately be the separator for the defending World Series champs.

“The key is not trying to do too much,” Avila said, “understanding what you’re capable of, and just trying to take care of that and allow the talent to take over."

If you can't wait for baseball to be back, take a look at the Cubs' spring training schedule


If you can't wait for baseball to be back, take a look at the Cubs' spring training schedule

Set your alarm, there are only three more months till baseball is back.

The Cubs announced their spring training schedule Monday, getting folks all amped up for the 34 exhibition games in February and March.

Spring game action gets started Feb. 23 out in Arizona, with the Cubs taking on the Milwaukee Brewers to kick off Cactus League play. The Cubs' first home spring game at Sloan Park in Mesa comes the next day, Feb. 24.

In addition to a 32-game Cactus League slate, the Cubs will take on the Cleveland Indians in a pair of exhibition games in Las Vegas. That 2016 World Series rematch comes March 17 and 18.

And of course, there will be three meetings with the White Sox, as both Chicago teams play their spring schedule out in Arizona. Those "Cactus Crosstown" games will be played Feb. 27 and March 10 in Mesa and March 16 in Glendale.

Here's the full schedule:

What if Jake Arrieta stays in the NL Central and repeatedly haunts the Cubs?

What if Jake Arrieta stays in the NL Central and repeatedly haunts the Cubs?

Jake Arrieta in a Brewers uniform?

That's not a sight Cubs fans would like to see, but the North Siders' I-94 rivals are apparently keen on trying to add Arrieta, the free-agent pitcher who's been one of the National League's top arms for the past several seasons.

The Cubs have their own decision to make on whether or not they're going to pursue re-signing Arrieta, a guy who over the past three seasons has posted a 2.71 ERA and struck out 589 batters, winning 54 games in 94 starts for a team that won the 2016 World Series and has advanced to three consecutive NL Championship Series.

The downside to losing Arrieta is obvious, as the Cubs would lose a huge part of their formidable starting rotation, but there would be an added downside if Arrieta were to remain in the NL Central and repeatedly haunt his former team.

Given Arrieta's track record, adding him would make sense for any team in the majors, but the Brewers in particular could use a front-of-the-line starting pitcher to boost their chances of besting the Cubs for the Central crown. The Brew Crew staged a surprising threat to do just that in 2017, perhaps proving that their rebuilding effort has yielded fruit ahead of schedule.

But there are questions in that rotation, with Jimmy Nelson expected to miss time next season after having shoulder surgery. Chase Anderson was great last season, and Zach Davies was solid, too. Brewers starters posted an ERA of 4.10 on the season, good for fifth in the NL. The four teams ahead of them, including the Cubs, all made the playoffs. Adding an arm as good as Arrieta's could make the difference in jumping past the Cubs in the Central and getting the Crew to the postseason for the first time since 2011.

And it'd be a plus for the Brewers to make it so Arrieta couldn't shut down their hitters anymore. In 15 career starts against the Crew, Arrieta is 8-4 with a 2.74 ERA. However, they'd surely love to have him call Miller Park home. He's never lost there in five starts, boasting a 2.03 ERA with 30 strikeouts.

There's an argument to be made that Arrieta would be able to seek revenge on the Cubs no matter what team he ends up pitching for, be it an NL team facing off against the Cubs in the playoffs or an American League squad meeting the Cubs in the World Series. After all, as Scott Boras put it, signing Arrieta is a ticket to "Playoffville."

But should Arrieta make the short drive to Wisconsin and set up shop in America's Dairyland, turning the Brewers into a legitimate playoff contender and challenger to the Cubs' grip on the NL Central crown? Well, consider the Cubs-Brewers rivalry cranked up to 11.