A National League scout called Willson Contreras the most dangerous hitter in the Cubs lineup right now, marveling at the young catcher’s enthusiasm and the relentless way he plays the game: “He’s the f------ Energizer Bunny.”
But the Cubs also understand that the law of diminishing returns will kick in with Contreras, who has played in 20 of the 21 games since Miguel Montero talked his way out of the clubhouse and got shipped to Canada in what was supposed to be an addition-by-subtraction trade with the Toronto Blue Jays.
That chemistry experiment still left the Cubs without a real insurance policy behind the plate, essentially looking for the same kind of veteran catcher as Montero. Except this guy won’t have the same loose-cannon personality and will cost farm-system talent on top of the roughly $7 million owed Montero.
As bright as Victor Caratini’s future may be, the Cubs don’t have any other catchers on the 40-man roster (except Kyle Schwarber in an emergency situation) and can’t realistically expect a 23-year-old rookie to learn an entire pitching staff on the fly and become an everyday player in the middle of a pennant race. That makes catcher an obvious area for Theo Epstein’s front office to upgrade before the July 31 trade deadline.
“We have a couple more days to try to put it all together,” manager Joe Maddon said before Monday’s 3-1 loss to the White Sox at Wrigley Field. “I know the boys are trying to figure that out. Of course, that makes sense. I can’t deny what you’re saying makes sense. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen that way or not.”
Contreras barking at Angel Hernandez and smashing his bat into the ground after the home plate umpire walked away from him became the snapshot of frustration in a crosstown game where the Cubs went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position and left 12 men on base.
Contreras breaking his bat into two pieces in front of a crowd of 40,849 became the exclamation point after looking at three straight fastballs from White Sox reliever Anthony Swarzak clocked between 93.2 and 96.2 mph. The called strike three to end the game came on a check swing with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo on base, but it still doesn’t really change the trade-deadline calculus for a 51-47 team that has won eight of 10 games since the All-Star break.
The most logical targets appear to be Alex Avila and Jonathan Lucroy, with the Detroit Tigers clear sellers and the Texas Rangers in a holding pattern and on the fringes of the American League wild-card race.
Avila (11 homers, .902 OPS) could be the left-handed hitting complement to Contreras, a steady backup and a good clubhouse presence. Avila’s father, Al, works as Detroit’s general manager, overseeing what has been a difficult teardown after four straight division titles between 2011 and 2014 and the death of owner Mike Ilitch in February. (The Cubs are also believed to be interested in lefty reliever Justin Wilson, who has a 2.82 ERA and 12 saves for the Tigers this season.)
Lucroy has been described as someone who needs to play regularly to be effective, which might partially explain his .636 OPS this year. Whatever slippage may show up on the defensive metrics now, the Cubs had long admired the way Lucroy ran a game and handled pitchers with the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs had interest last summer but got the strong sense that the Brewers would never trade a homegrown All-Star player to a division rival 90 miles away.
At one point, the emergence of Contreras plus Montero’s peace summit with Maddon at an Italian restaurant during spring training made it look like Caratini could become a trade chip this summer. Caratini hit .341 with eight homers, 20 doubles and 54 RBI in his first 69 games at the Triple-A level.
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But what if Contreras does break down after a foul tip or in a collision or from exhaustion?
“Again, that’s not denigrating Victor,” Maddon said. “Victor is at the point in his development that you don’t want him sitting around this much. As a developmental guy, it bothers me to see him there. He’s in a great mood every day. He’s ready every day. He’s a part of the group every day. He sits with (catching/strategy coach Mike) Borzello, wants to know what’s going on every day. Beautiful stuff.
“But when you got young guys like that, it’s really tough to watch them sit on the bench, because you know how important that year is to them. So, moving forward, I know there’s different things we have discussed, but I’m not sure exactly where it’s at.”
One idea that Maddon has scratched to keep his cleanup hitter fresh: Occasionally moving Contreras (15 homers, 52 RBI) to the outfield or a corner-infield spot. Maddon already has enough playing-time issues while trying to manage the egos in the clubhouse.
“With the roster construction right now, I don’t think it’s necessary,” Maddon said. “If something were to happen – people were unavailable – then it might become more attractive to do something like that possibly.
“A lot of these guys deserve to play, but it’s hard to get them active or involved. I don’t want to just (carve) out a spot and give it to (Willson when) guys that need to play are not. That could infiltrate or impact your room negatively also, which I don’t want to do. I’m really wary of all those different things.
“It goes beyond: ‘Yeah, Willson is playing well, you want him in the lineup, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ But you want to keep the room good, too. And to keep the room good, you got to keep everybody involved.”