How the Cubs might withstand a lengthy absence of Willson Contreras

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PHOENIX – If an MRI Thursday reveals Catcher Willson Contreras’ hamstring injury is as serious as it looked Wednesday, it might be the Cubs’ most significant injury in a decade or more – considering the importance of his hitting and his position, the point in the season and what’s at stake for the team.

Even Kyle Schwarber’s season-ending knee injury in 2016 – which happened in the same Arizona ballpark the Cubs get their first chance Friday to respond to the loss of Contreras – was mitigated by the facts it happened the first week of the season, was in a position area of renewed depth and meant a better defender subsequently played left field.

Results of Contreras’ MRI and an estimated timeline for a return are expected by Friday’s series opener against the Diamondbacks.

But would a lengthy loss of Contreras – even for the rest of the regular-season – necessarily sound a death knell for the Cubs’ title defense hopes?

Maybe not.

Several factors suggest the Cubs have a realistic – if not strong – shot at taking care of business in the National League Central even if Contreras is out until October. Even though they’ve lost six of their last eight games before the imminent DL move.

The division sucks.

The Cubs’ 59 victories are the fewest for a division leader in the majors, and nobody in baseball is afraid of the closely pursuing Brewers or Cardinals – perhaps the two most flawed teams among playoff “contenders.”

The Cubs can still pitch. Often very well.

The rotation that struggled so much in the first half (4.66 ERA) is 13-4 since the All-Star break with a 3.11 ERA. Former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta is on a seven-start roll as he approaches the promise of a big payday as a free agent in a few months; 2016 ERA champ Kyle Hendricks is working back into form since a seven-week stay on the DL; and the July acquisition of Jose Quintana has significantly changed the look of the starting depth.

Even the bullpen that has had several tough innings since the break compared to a lights-out first half, has a 3.25 ERA since that aberrant nine-run inning by the Cardinals on July 21.

The schedule falls into the Cubs’ favor as soon as they leave Phoenix on Sunday night.

Thirteen consecutive games starting Monday at home are against last-place teams: four against the Reds, three against the Blue Jays, then three at Cincinnati followed by three at Philadelphia. That stretch is followed by 11 consecutive games against two more teams with losing records (entering play Thursday): the Pirates (seven games) and the Braves.

And if they still have work to do in the final three weeks? Fourteen of their final 22 games – including eight of the final 11 – are against the Brewers and Cardinals.

Alex Avila.

After gutting their veteran catching depth by hastily shipping out Miguel Montero June 28 after his critical comments to the media, the Cubs had barely one year of combined major-league catching experience on their big-league roster.

A month later, they landed Avila, a 2011 All-Star, in a deadline deal with the Tigers – in large part for insurance against an injury like this to Contreras.

Avila, a starter much of his career, has caught three of the five Cub starters and called it a smooth transition to the staff so far.

He doesn’t have Contreras’ big arm, and the running game could be an issue at times – especially with Jon Lester, who’s accustomed to a personal catcher. But Avila is a sizeable short-term upgrade over rookie backup Victor Caratini.

“It’s a good thing we got him,” Hendricks said.

Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

A year ago, the biggest question about the corner-infield All-Stars was whether they had a chance to finish 1-2 in the MVP voting. Bryant won it; Rizzo finished fourth.

Both are having good years this season, but not at last year’s levels. And neither has had the extended, carry-the-team kind of streak that marked their performances the last two years.

If either takes off on a tear, it will go a long way toward offsetting the production loss of the catcher who has been the team’s top hitter since early July.

“We just have to step up and pick him up now,” Rizzo said.

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub






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