Victor Caratini

Cubs add some catching depth in the form of Jonathan Lucroy

Cubs add some catching depth in the form of Jonathan Lucroy

The Cubs are adding a veteran catcher to the mix in the form of Jonathan Lucroy.

Lucroy, 33, was designated for assignment last week and after he cleared waivers, the Angels released him, officially making him a free agent as of Wednesday afternoon. The team confirmed the move after the 10-1 win over the A's, sending Taylor Davis back down to Triple-A Iowa to create room on the roster.

Lucroy is expected to be available for the Cubs Thursday in Cincinnati as they begin an 11-day, 10-game road trip. 

"I've heard a lot of wonderful things about him," Joe Maddon said. "He adds that veteran mix behind the plate that I think is really important, especially this time of the year. ... He can swing the bat. He knows what he's doing back there. Cole Hamels played with him in Texas, for example, and he spoke very highly of him, too. 

"So we're really excited to get a player of that caliber right now with everything that's going on for us. We're pretty fortunate."

The Cubs needed some more catching for the stretch run after Willson Contreras injured his hamstring in Saturday's game. The two-time All-Star starter underwent an MRI Monday and is looking at a four-week timeline. This is the same injury he had in August and September of 2017 when he missed about a month.

Lucroy signed with the Angels over the winter on a one-year, $3.35 million deal but since he was released, the Cubs would not have to cover the prorated portion of that contract. With this being the first year of no August waiver trades around Major League Baseball and Contreras' injury coming just after the July deadline, the Cubs' options were limited at adding another backstop from outside the organization, but it worked out in their favor that Lucroy hit the market.

The veteran missed most of July after suffering a concussion on a brutal collision with Houston's Jake Marisnick at home plate:

He returned from the injured list July 31 and played one game before being designated for assignment.

Lucroy hit .242 with a .681 OPS, 7 homers and 30 RBI in 74 games in L.A. and it's been a little while since he was above average offensively (even for a catcher). He made the All-Star team with the Brewers in 2016 and was traded to the Rangers in the middle of that year, finishing with 24 homers, 81 RBI and an .855 OPS. 

Back in 2014, Lucroy led the NL with 53 doubles and finished fourth in MVP voting with Milwaukee.

Lucroy doesn't strike out much at the plate and could form a nice platoon with Victor Caratini, whom the Cubs prefer to face right-handed pitchers. Lucroy also provides more depth and a veteran presence who has been to the postseason four times.

He already comes with some experience with the Cubs pitching staff, as he's already logged more than 100 innings behind the plate for three Cubs pitchers — Hamels (111), Yu Darvish (129.1) and Brandon Kintzler (132.1). In fact, no catcher has worked more with Kintzler in-game and only one other catcher (Geovany Soto) has been behind the plate more in Darvish's MLB career.

Regardless of how he hits, he figures to be a valuable addition to help manage the pitching staff and give the Cubs experience at the most important defensive position in the middle of a tight playoff race. Plus, it's added protection against injury, as Caratini has taken a couple of dings to his wrists/forearms in recent games.

"Obviously a guy who's been around for a long time, has a lot of history against the Cubs. Glad to bring him over here and have him come in and get his perspective on a lot of things and win some ballgames," Kyle Schwarber said.

Given Contreras' timeline, he probably wouldn't return before Sept. 1 when rosters expand, so the Cubs could conceivably work him back slowly with Caratini and Lucroy still on the roster. 

With catching depth suddenly a concern, could Cubs turn to Kyle Schwarber behind the plate?

With catching depth suddenly a concern, could Cubs turn to Kyle Schwarber behind the plate?

No more than five minutes after Willson Contreras came up hobbling in Saturday's Cubs win, there was Kyle Schwarber with a catcher's glove in hand.

Schwarber jumped at the chance to squat behind home plate, even if only to warm up a couple of Cubs relievers in between innings while Victor Caratini — Contreras' replacement — got his gear on after hitting.

You better believe Schwarber has been in Joe Maddon's ear, reminding him he can catch while the Cubs' depth is being tested with Contreras out for the next month with a Grade-2 hamstring strain.

"Oh he wants to play, man," Maddon said, laughing. "He came in after the game [Sunday] and talked to me about actually starting a game. He's ready to roll."

Maddon confirmed Schwarber would serve as the Cubs' emergency catcher over the next few weeks — a position he already filled even when Contreras was healthy. 

The team currently has Caratini and Taylor Davis for depth and will likely add a veteran from outside the organization in some capacity. 

Schwarber came up as a part-time catcher in the Cubs system, playing 72 games and more than 623 innings at the position. He also caught 21 games (15 starts) in his rookie season of 2015 before blowing out his knee in the collision with Dexter Fowler in April 2016. 

Since then, Schwarber has not started a game at catcher in the big leagues, only seeing four appearances and seven total innings behind the dish (all of which came in 2017). 

While the position's defensive requirements are obviously important, the Cubs also have to find a way to match the offense Contreras was putting up from the catcher spot (.890 OPS). 

The lineup has been inconsistent all year, so would it be crazy to see the team get creative and put Schwarber at catcher and somebody like Ian Happ or Albert Almora Jr. in the outfield for an offensive-minded group? The Cubs could always swap out Schwarber for defensive purposes late in games and insert Davis or Caratini.

The short answer: Don't expect to see that.

"I think he'd like that," GM Jed Hoyer said with a smile. "I think we've always felt good about having that as a third catcher if something happened. Most teams have an infielder or something like that, but we have a guy that did it a lot in the minor leagues. He can certainly do it.

"I've always thought the challenge with that kind of thing is the bullpen. It's one thing to catch the starters; it's another thing to catch a series of relievers coming into the game throwing 97 mph. It's a lot different than playing in left field.

"He would do a good job if we needed him, but our goal here is to keep him healthy and keep his bat in the lineup. We made that decision to move him out from behind there for that reason."

Like Hoyer said, the Cubs haven't really considered Schwarber a catcher for years. Even before the devastating knee injury, they weren't sure he'd stick long-term at the most demanding defensive position on the field.

But hey, as Maddon always says, "necessity is the mother of invention," so maybe don't rule anything out over these next few weeks...

'Just another day at the office' as injury bug smacks into Cubs

'Just another day at the office' as injury bug smacks into Cubs

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.