Bill Belichick

No days off: The Cubs absolutely cannot keep Willson Contreras out of the lineup right now

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AP

No days off: The Cubs absolutely cannot keep Willson Contreras out of the lineup right now

Joe Maddon didn't channel Bill Belichick with some "no days off!" chant before Saturday's 7-3 win over the Washington Nationals, but it's clear Willson Contreras will get no rest right now.

As Maddon wrote out the lineup against former Cub Edwin Jackson and the Washington Nationals, he wanted to get newly-acquired veteran catcher Alex Avila behind the plate, but knew he couldn't take the red-hot Contreras out of the lineup.

So Contreras started in left field for only the third time this season and hit in his now-usual cleanup spot in the lineup behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo as the Cubs look to snap a three-game skid.

The plan worked out perfectly as Contreras drove in a run in the first on a swinging bunt before Avila hit a two-run shot. Contreras later added a two-run blast of his own in the sixth inning to give the Cubs some much-needed insurance.

The 25-year-old rising star has been an absolute monster since the All-Star Break, hitting .370 with a 1.141 OPS, eight homers and 27 RBI in 21 second-half games. 

Contreras woke up on the morning of June 18 hitting only .244 with a .708 OPS, five homers and 28 RBI. After another big game Saturday, he's now hitting .279 with an .861 OPS, 19 homers and 68 RBI.

He's driven in 40 runs and crushed 14 homers in a stretch of only 39 games. That's a next-level hot streak, especially for a catcher.

"You can't deny what he's doing right now," Maddon said, admitting Contreras has joined the ranks of the elite catchers in the game. "I don't want him to be impacted and start thinking differently, but he is playing at that level. Who's playing better than that at that position?

"A combination of everything considered, it's not just the hitting — controlling the running game, the blocking, the energy that he provides every day. ... Yep, he's one of the best right now."

Any talk of Contreras joining the NL MVP race is premature, though "The Willson Contreras Game" Thursday helped put him on the map nationally, even if the Cubs wound up losing that contest.

Contreras is the "f--king Energizer Bunny" and said he has no issues bringing that intensity and energy level to the field on a daily basis.

But the Cubs are also focused on making sure he doesn't run himself into the ground, acquiring Avila in part to save Contreras from himself.

Just last week, Maddon was asked if he would ever give Contreras a start in left field to keep his bat in the lineup while still giving him a breather from the demanding physical tolls of catcher. 

At the time, the Cubs field general didn't dismiss it, but he admitted it would be a tricky spot to tell guys like Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay or Albert Almora Jr. they won't get a chance to play because the team needs to move their catcher out to the outfield.

But Saturday became that situation for Maddon and the Cubs as Schwarber takes a seat on the bench despite hitting .261 with a .911 OPS over the last month since being recalled from Triple-A Iowa.

Almora also remains on the bench, having not drawn a start since Tuesday against Arizona. But his splits are pretty jarring (.343 AVG, .961 OPS vs. LHPs compared to .235/.582 vs. RHPs) and the young outfielder figures to get plenty of playing time during the upcoming week in San Francisco as the Cubs are slated to face a trio of southpaws in Matt Moore, Ty Blach and Madison Bumgarner.

With the Cubs facing something of a "must-win" game Saturday, there was simply no Way Contreras could be out of the lineup, even if it means he won't get another day off until later next week if everything plays right. 

"He's swinging the bat way too well," Maddon said. "I gotta get Alex in there. You look at what's happening: Jonny Lester's going [Sunday] — that's Willson — and then there comes a bunch of lefties in San Francisco — that's Willson.

"So we needed to get Alex some at-bats and have him play and so with that, it's really difficult to take Willson Contreras' bat out of the lineup right now."

Is Charles Leno Jr. right long-term fit at left tackle for Bears?

Is Charles Leno Jr. right long-term fit at left tackle for Bears?

“I know if I take care of my business out here, everything else will take care of itself," Bears offensive tackle Charles Leno Jr. told CSNChicago.com when asked about the personal significant of the 2017 season.

Leno Jr. is entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, and since Jermon Bushrod injured his back in Week 3 of the the 2015 season, Leno, Jr. has been the starter at left tackle in the 29 games since. Leno Jr. has established himself as consistent and durable, but public opinions on him outside of Halas Hall cast doubt on how high the ceiling is for the final (seventh round) draft pick of the Phil Emery regime.

Pro Football Focus’ grading system has its fans and detractors. While the Boise State product showed improvement in 2016 (70.4 grade) compared to 2015 (46.1), they ranked him 44th out of 64 offensive tackles. Also, according to PFF, Leno Jr. and right tackle Bobby Massie allowed 73 quarterback pressures and committed 14 penalties, while grading out poorly in the run game as a tandem.

Yet there’s also the overall picture to look at. The team allowed just 26 sacks, ninth-fewest in the NFL despite three different starting quarterbacks. Football Outsiders ranked the Bears offensive line seventh in pass protection and eighth in rushing. But critics of the two tackles will say the main reason for those rankings is the strength in the middle, between Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, and Kyle Long (for half a season, at least).  Not that Leno, Jr. hasn’t been closely evaluated already, but as his future, and payday, looms. It’ll be an even more interesting watch this season.

“I’m always ready to take that next step,” said the 6-foot-3, 310-pounder who’ll turn 26 when the Bears host the Vikings on Monday, Oct. 9. “ Every year you can take a step. Whether it’s your rookie year to your second year, third year to your fourth, or ninth year to your tenth, you’re always trying to take another step, always get better. That’s my job right now, that’s my goal.”

And he’ll have to do it under his third different offensive line coach in his four years, as Jeremiah Washburn takes over for Dave Magazu. Leno Jr. told me there have been mostly minor tweaks and adjustments when it comes to new position coaches. He was most noticeable (that’s a bad thing), late in the season, when he was beaten a few times for sacks, but that didn’t do much to cloud his overall performance in his boss’ mind.

[MORE: Can the Bears win 'Nervous Season'?]

“To be honest, Leno was a real pleasant surprise, really exceeded expectations there,” general manager Ryan Pace said back on Jan. 4. “And I thought as he gained confidence, he got better and better. He’s very athletic, he’s long, got good balance. So (he) did very well. We have positive vibes about him coming out of the season.”

Leno, Jr. will make about $1.8 million this season as he finishes out his rookie deal. But as he enters this contract year, there are currently 14 left tackles in the NFL (including all the so-called “elite”) making an average of at least $10 million annually on their current contracts:

PLAYER | TEAM | MONEY

Trent Williams (WSH), $13.6

Russell Okung (LAC), $13.25

Terron Armstead (NO), $13

Tyron Smith (DAL), $12.2

Cordy Glenn (BUF), $12

Eric Fisher (KC), $12

David Bakhtiari (GB), $12

Riley Reiff (MIN), $11.75

Joe Thomas (CLE), $11.5

Andrew Whitworth (LAR), $11.25

Matt Kalil (CAR), $11.1

Anthony Castonzo (IND), $10.95

Jason Peters (PHI), $10.8

Nate Solder (NE), $10

Other left tackles averaging less than $10 million annually on their current deals include Houston’s Duane Brown, San Francisco’s Joe Staley, Atlanta's Jake Matthews and Tennessee’s Taylor Lewan. Plus, keep in mind here that Reiff (Detroit) and Kalil (Minnesota) were first-round picks by Bears' NFC North rivals deemed not good enough to keep around. Yet they still found believers willing to write a big check elsewhere.  If not the Bears, Leno, Jr. may find similar interest elsewhere with a season comparable to 2016. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder. 11 years ago, Pace and the Saints made Northwestern’s Zach Strief a seventh round pick, and he’s hung around — not becoming a starter until his sixth season, yet being a linchpin at right tackle since.

From the above list, only the 29-year-old Solder is a pending free agent, and it’s hard to see the Patriots letting him walk, though Bill Belichick has done stranger things that’ve worked out in the end. Leno Jr. is the next-best option, because the others really aren’t. Oakland’s Donald Penn is 34, while the Chargers’ Chris Hairston, the Ravens’ James Hurst, and the Dolphins’ Sam Young have all started less than half time they’ve been in the league.

If the Bears let Leno Jr. walk and look toward the draft, Notre Dame senior Mike McGlinchey is generally regarded as the highest-rated left tackle heading into the fall with Texas’ Connor Williams, Orlando Brown of Oklahoma, Mitch Hyatt of Clemson and Martinas Rankin of Mississippi State owning various first and second-round grades. 

Regardless of how the upcoming season goes, figure the Bears will still have needs to be addressed in the draft, “best available” or not. If he doesn’t have a believer in Pace already, another step forward by Leno Jr. could earn himself a payday, and stability — personally, and for the team as they figure out how to get the best protection possible for their quarterback of the future.

Could Bears overlook Josh McDaniels factor and repeat QB mistake with Jimmy Garoppolo?

Could Bears overlook Josh McDaniels factor and repeat QB mistake with Jimmy Garoppolo?

The Bears once thought they knew more than Josh McDaniels did, about Jay Cutler. If the Bears have targeted a No. 2 quarterback that McDaniels, Bill Belichick and the Patriots are willing to turn loose, do they AGAIN think they’re quarterback-smarter than McDaniels?

The Bears buzz around New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo started quite some time ago (when is there NOT some sort of buzz around the Bears and “quarterback?”) and is now going to increase in volume as the 2017 league year — and free agency and trading window — open in March.

Trading for the largely untested Patriots’ backup would constitute addressing the Bears’ quarterback concern. But “addressing” is not the same as “solving,” and the Bears have been undone once before with a short-sighted infatuation with a quarterback just because of apparent NFL “credentials.”

But there was a reason why Cutler was made available, just as there would be a reason or several why Garoppolo, whom the Patriots thought enough of to invest a second-round draft choice in a few seasons ago.

One common “reason” that Cutler and now Garoppolo presumably have been available is McDaniels, the incoming Denver Broncos coach who ousted Cutler and New England offensive coordinator tasked with mentoring Garoppolo and Tom Brady, the latter both before and after his stint in Denver.

Meaning: McDaniels may not be a fit as a head coach, but he does know something about what an elite quarterback should play and act like. He was quick to dump Cutler, and as the highest-ranking offensive coach under Belichick, McDaniels is intimately involved in any decision regarding Garoppolo.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

If the Bears are good with Garoppolo, then they are addressing their quarterback situation with a second-round draft choice, which Garoppolo was and has thrown exactly 94 NFL passes (albeit, without an interception). If that were the stated plan this upcoming draft, the reaction would be ... not good.

The instant love gush over Cutler after the 2009 trade was bizarre, if only because he had little record as a winner and a Pro Bowl as his credential. (Never mind that, to cite Georgetown legend John Thompson, “Pro Bowl” isn’t a distinction won; it’s given by vote.)

What makes the infatuation with Garoppolo particularly amusing, is that Garoppolo was a decent quarterback at Eastern Illinois — 61 percent completions, but with pedestrian rates of 63 percent and INT rate of 3 percent (118 TD’s, 51 INT’s). Against Ohio Valley Conference competition. Really?

Just for comparison purposes, of course: But Deshaun Watson completed 67 percent of his Clemson passes (every year, 67-plus percent), with an INT rate of 2.7 percent. Against ACC competition. And then there’s the National Championship thing...

Jimmy Garoppolo? It Could work. But brining in another quarterback that Josh McDaniels is OK with going forward without? Really?