Just two days ago, everything seemed to be falling into place for the Cubs.
They had just played a clean game the day before to beat the division-rival Brewers and had welcomed Cole Hamels back off the injured list for the Saturday afternoon game. An optimistic feeling started to surround the team with the roster was back at full strength — or close to it.
That feeling evaporated quickly as Willson Contreras came up hobbling with a right hamstring injury and then later that game — as we discovered Monday — Craig Kimbrel first felt his knee injury while picking up his 9th save.
Contreras was placed on the injured list Sunday and a Monday MRI revealed a Grade-2 strain, which will keep him out roughly four weeks. Kimbrel went to the shelf Monday with right knee inflammation, though he hopes to be back within the 10-day limit.
It's bad news anytime a team has to deal with multiple injuries in such quick succession, but we're talking about one of the best closers in the game and also a guy who has started each of the last two All-Star Games as the National League's catcher.
On top of all that, Brandon Kintzler — the MVP of the bullpen this season — left Monday's 6-5 victory with a right pectoral issue and is being evaluated.
"I just see it as another day at the office. It's just something you get used to doing," Joe Maddon said Monday evening before recalling his days as a minor-league coach and manager when he had to deal with a constantly-changing roster.
"Our depth is tested, no doubt," GM Jed Hoyer said. "Not the best time for injury — a couple days into August. But that's the game. There's no sympathy anywhere, so we just have to figure it out."
As Hoyer alluded to, the MLB trade deadline just passed and this is the first season in which teams cannot utilize the waiver wire to make trades in August. So the Cubs will have to get creative if they're going to add another catcher from outside the organization (which seems likely).
The Cubs like what Taylor Davis can provide defensively (especially as a pitch-framer) and Victor Caratini has had a nice season in limited playing time. But it's "big boy time" right now in a tight division race and the Cubs have no other catchers currently on the 40-man roster behind Davis, so they could certainly use more depth.
Making matters worse is the Martin Maldonado deal on Wednesday, where the Cubs traded away the veteran backstop to acquire Tony Kemp and remove the three-catcher issues on the roster.
When the Cubs traded for Maldonado last month, they touted his ability as a pitch-framer and game-caller and emphasized the need for depth at that particular position — especially with no August waiver deals.
But they ultimately felt carrying three catchers on the roster was too difficult to manage.
"We talked about it a lot," Hoyer said. "Candidly, a lot of it came down to player happiness. It's hard to keep three guys happy. There's no doubt that keeping three and having that depth on the 25-man [roster], in theory it works. But in practice, when all three guys are playing less than they want and all three guys are good major-league players that deserve to play. That was a big part of it.
"We weren't entirely confident that it wouldn't impact all three guys in a negative way — three out of 25 is a big number when you think about your overall clubhouse dynamic. That was a big part of the conversation. Obviously, you want the depth and I think that was something we desired, but we felt like we couldn't do it and felt like [the trade] was the right thing to do. We were happy to get Tony and we think he's gonna have a big impact on us."
Contreras missed a month in August and September 2017 with a strain in the same hamstring, so at least he's been through this before and he and the Cubs know what to expect. But even he admitted he wished "this would've happened a week before" while Maldonado was still on the team.
The Cubs first acquired Maldonado the same time Contreras was placed on the injured list with a right foot issue, though that stay was only the minimum 10-day variety.
Now, the Cubs will be without their star backstop until at least early-September.
"I'm disappointed with this injury because the way that I take care of my body, it shouldn't happen that way," Contreras said. "But it happens. Everything happens for a reason. That was my main thing — why did this happen to me if I take care of my body real good?
"But I can't control that. I leave everything in God's hands and just be smart about my recovery."
Contreras won't be able to do anything for the next week or two beyond icing and resting and he said he will begin jogging two weeks or so into his recovery.
The Cubs will certainly miss his bat, but they hope the arrival of Nicholas Castellanos will help the offense in addition to some improved performance from role players like David Bote, Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ.
As for Kimbrel, the star closer said he would be out there pitching for the Cubs if it were late September or October and not the first week of August. He does not expect to need more than the 10 days to get his right knee back on track, and the Cubs were able to make the move retroactive a day since Kimbrel didn't pitch on Sunday.
He has some swelling in the knee, but framed it as "discomfort" and said it's nothing like the meniscus surgery he had to have on his left knee in 2016.
He and the Cubs don't feel now is the right time to push anything and since it's his plant leg, they don't want to potentially mess anything up with his arm or mechanics.
The tough timing for Kimbrel is he actually started feeling like himself again after missing spring training and the first two-plus months of the season.
"I was getting real close; I was feeling real good," he said. "I was throwing some pretty good fastballs, getting good spin on my breaking ball. Those are all signs that I'm staying back on the ball and getting out front really well. And I'm starting to do that.
"It's unfortunate that I'm gonna have to take a little break, but it's gonna be something that hopefully it's a good thing, get it feeling better and the guys can hold it down until I get back."
In the meantime, the Cubs will go with a closer by committee, leaning on Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler mostly, though Rowan Wick and Kyle Ryan may also be in the mix, Maddon said.
The Cubs also hope to regain the services of Pedro Strop (neck) back in the bullpen soon. They said the veteran right-hander is feeling better, but there is currently no rehab assignment or next step to announce.