The Cubs could activate Miguel Montero as soon as this weekend at Wrigley Field, adding another edgy personality to what’s becoming a heated rivalry with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Cubs have stacked up the most wins in baseball (25) without getting a home run from Jason Heyward or a hit from Kyle Schwarber or much of a jolt from Montero, a two-time All-Star catcher who had been hitting .208 when he went on the disabled list on April 28 with lower back tightness.
Until getting swept by the last-place San Diego Padres during Wednesday’s doubleheader, the Cubs made it past a Blackhawks playoff run, the NFL Draft, Cinco de Mayo, the Kentucky Derby and Mother’s Day before finally losing back-to-back games for the first time this season.
The Cubs understand it will be impossible to maintain a .758 winning percentage for the next 129 games. Theo Epstein’s front office is already bracing for the crash, trying to think through worst-case scenarios and how to respond in the middle of a pennant race.
The dynamic between Montero — who’s nearing the end of his rehab assignment with Triple-A Iowa — and elite catching prospect Willson Contreras helps show how the Cubs got to this point and where they go from here.
The Cubs won’t rush Contreras, a Southern League batting champion last season, or Albert Almora, the first player drafted here by the Epstein administration in 2012. But Contreras is viewed as a future frontline catcher, and Almora has such good instincts that he could be a plus defender in a big-league outfield tomorrow.
“You always try to balance major-league need with long-term player development,” Epstein said. “We think it’s really important that our best prospects spend as close to a full year as possible at the Triple-A level.
“Especially with catchers, their time at Triple-A is invaluable, because it’s as close as you can get to the major-league dynamic, understanding how to handle pitchers, how to call games, how to maintain a sense of calm, even when things are speeding up during the course of a game.”
With Schwarber recovering from knee surgery, it didn’t become a difficult decision when Montero felt something similar to the lower back strain that forced him to miss almost a month with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013.
This is the kind of situation the Cubs envisioned when they agreed to a minor-league deal with Tim Federowicz, a former Boston Red Sox draft pick (shocker) who caught Matt Harvey at the University of North Carolina and worked with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke on the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“When you have a catcher making his major-league debut, there’s a lot that goes into that,” Epstein said. “A lot of guys have to kind of nurse him through that. He’s got to make some mistakes, so that he can learn from (them). He’s got to build relationships. There will be a time for that.”
The Pacific Coast League can create some numbers inflation. But the Cubs don’t doubt Contreras — who’s batting .347 with a .939 OPS through his first 27 games with Iowa — will become an impact hitter in The Show.
“He’s a really talented hitter,” Epstein said. “But we’re not as concerned with his offensive development. He’s a real natural hitter. He hits the ball hard, sprays line drives from line to line, drives the ball through the gaps, doesn’t strike out a lot, has a pretty good feel for the strike zone.
“So I think he’s going to adjust pretty well over time offensively. It’s really the nuances of running a pitching staff that he’s working on. Triple-A is the perfect place to do that.”
The Cubs left their pitchers in the capable hands of David Ross and Federowicz, who have helped the rotation go 24-for-33 in quality starts and put up a 2.29 ERA that leads the majors by a wide margin (with the Washington Nationals second at 2.77).
That’s also a product of the complex game-planning system designed by coaches Chris Bosio and Mike Borzello and supported by Joe Maddon’s Geek Department.
It’s unfair to think Contreras — who grew up in Venezuela and will turn 24 on Friday — can just show up and take charge of a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) and two two-time World Series champions (Jon Lester and John Lackey).
“A Triple-A clubhouse is an interesting place to navigate,” Epstein said. “You got some guys on the way up, some guys on the way down who feel they should be back up there. Pitchers are working on things, and sometimes you can learn a lot just keeping those guys happy and being the guy they want to throw to.
“Advance (scouting) reports are more a part of the equation at Triple-A than they are at Double-A or the lower levels. It’s the perfect place for him to be right now and continue to evolve.
“He’s an outstanding thrower, an outstanding blocker, but he’s continuing to work on his receiving as well. Besides the intangible components of catching, he’s working on receiving all the different pitches in all the different parts of the zone.”
The Cubs will hold a seven-game lead over the Pirates when they face Francisco Liriano on Friday afternoon in Wrigleyville, knowing that it will take veterans like Montero and Heyward picking up the pace, energy boosts from the farm system and the trade deadline and even more unexpected contributions (Shane Victorino?) to successfully finish this marathon.
“It’s so early,” Epstein said. “We’re thrilled with the start we’ve gotten off to, but we’re not blinded by it.
“The season’s 26 weeks long. A team could make up a game every other week on us and catch us and pass us. It doesn’t change the thought process at all.”