Willson Contreras may be ‘the f------ Energizer Bunny,’ but Cubs still need to get another catcher before trade deadline

Willson Contreras may be ‘the f------ Energizer Bunny,’ but Cubs still need to get another catcher before trade deadline

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.

[MORE: Was Hector Rondon tipping pitches during late-game meltdowns with Cubs?]

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.”

2021 MLB schedule: Cubs open at home against Pirates, play AL Central again

2021 MLB schedule: Cubs open at home against Pirates, play AL Central again

The 2020 Major League Baseball season hasn’t started yet and there’s no telling if the league will complete it in full due to COVID-19. In any case, the 2021 Cubs schedule was officially announced on Thursday.

The Cubs will open at home for the second straight season, taking on the Pirates at Wrigley Field on April 3. It’s the first time since 2011-12 the North Siders will open the season at Wrigley Field and third time in four seasons their home opener is against Pittsburgh.

2021 also marks the second consecutive year the Cubs will play the AL Central in interleague play. This includes six games against the White Sox (Aug. 6-8 at Wrigley; Aug. 27-29 at Guaranteed Rate Field). Their first interleague series is May 11-12 at Cleveland.

The Cubs travel to Minnesota (Aug. 31-Sept. 1) and host the Royals (Aug. 20-22) for the first time since 2015.

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Check out the full schedule:


Why Craig Kimbrel is Cubs' bellwether in short season like no closer before him

Why Craig Kimbrel is Cubs' bellwether in short season like no closer before him

Whether we’ll ever arrive at a time during pandemic baseball to let down our guards long enough to dream on the entirety of a 60-game season and playoffs, the Cubs will be hard pressed to let down their guards when it comes to holding leads late with a new-look bullpen and no margin for error in getting it right.

“Definitely each game’s going to be bigger, each lead change is going to be bigger in 60 games,” said veteran closer Craig Kimbrel — whose performance could be the bellwether for the Cubs fortunes like no other closer in any other season ever has.

“There’s going to be no such thing as a losing streak,” Kimbrel said. “If you’re going to want to be in it at the end, you’re going to have to stay consistent and try not to get in a funk.”

Bullpens already are considered the most inherently volatile position areas in baseball in any season. In a 60-gamer?

“It’s extremely important,” said Cubs manager David Ross, one of Kimbrel’s catchers in Atlanta when the right-hander broke into the majors 10 years ago. “Every aspect of this game is going to be highlighted in a 60-game sprint, and that’s definitely going to be a big part of it.”

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Kimbrel, 32, is a seven-time All-Star, who signed a three-year $43 million deal as a free agent early last season and then struggled down the stretch for the Cubs — allowing a career-high nine home runs in just 23 appearances.

He became a Twitter punchline when he gave up a homer to teammate Willson Contreras in a simulated game Tuesday, but Kimbrel said he was just trying to throw strikes and working on things — like the changeup Contreras hit.

The reality is Tuesday meant next to nothing when imagining Kimbrel’s performance once a season were to start July 24.

But last September — when he gave up four homers in three outings that included a 10th-inning loss and blown save in another loss in the span of three days against the Cardinals — is another matter.

If he starts 2020 like he finished 2019, the Cubs’ short season might be finished before it starts.

Will he recover the tick or two off his once upper-90s fastball to once again get away with location mistakes? Will his breaking ball and developing changeup become bigger weapons to make the fastball look more powerful? Will his location be good enough to make either less of an issue?

“I think he’s got a few things still to iron out, just talking to him, for him to feel comfortable,” Ross said. “And he knows some of his keys, he’s not quite there yet. It’s like any other pitcher. His is heightened by who he is, but every pitcher is looking at the data afterwards, looking at the high-speed cameras, seeing where the hand positioning is, comparing it to the success they’ve had in the past and trying to make small adjustments and get the action that they expect on the baseball.”

The theme often repeated by team officials since last year’s struggles was that Kimbrel suffered from not having a normal spring training last year because of the extended free agency that took his competitive debut into June.

Fast-forward to 2020 and … uh-oh.

But Kimbrel said last year’s experience is “definitely helpful” as he navigates the strangest season anybody in the game has experienced.

Any emotional downside associated with this season’s unusual format might come from the lack of fans in the stands and the natural adrenaline high that brings to the ninth inning with a slim lead.

“It’d be a lot nicer if there was [a crowd],” he said. “I’m just going to have to figure out a way to do it.

“I’ve just got to mentally go to a place and physically be ready to go out there and do what I’ve always done.”

The fact is his success is more likely to simply come down to whatever he gets out of that All-Star fastball — whether through location, sheer velocity or what he can make it look like off his other stuff.

“Obviously, when the fastball’s located and at the velocity you want it, things are great,” he said. “But I think with my offspeed pitches, the better I can control those, the better it makes my fastball.

“So I would honestly say controlling the curveball in the zone and keeping it down is only going to make my fastball play better. That’s really my mindset on that.”

He and the Cubs have two weeks to get it right. Because once the season starts so does the playoff chase — with every ninth- and 10th-inning home run as costly as the last time he took the mound for the Cubs when it counted.