In the midst of a four game winning streak Cubs fans should be delighted, but alas, that’s hardly the case. While the on-the-field performance has been predictably terrific since returning to Chicago, the injuries afflicting this roster have become comical, to the point they’ve overshadowed the team’s recent run of success.
We know that Craig Kimbrel‘s injury doesn’t appear to be serious, and that he’ll likely spend the minimum on the IL. Conversely, we know very little yet about Brandon Kintzler‘s status, although he’ll certainly be shelved for a few days at minimum — hopefully avoiding a stint on the IL himself.
While there are myriad other question marks about the bullpen’s health and effectiveness, none of them seem as pressing as the current absence of starting catcher Willson Contreras. Sure, one can speculate regret abounds within the Front Office for trading Martin Maldonado just days before Contreras’ injury, but the depth afforded in Maldonado’s brief cameo with the Cubs served as insurance until Willson’s previous return from injury, and flipping Martin for a more useful bench piece in utility man Tony Kemp made sense for both the Cubs and Astros.
The injury to Contreras is an especially depressing reality, however, considering the season he’s having. Never a good pitch framer, Contreras’ value stems from both his aggressive defense behind the dish — both with his arm and making plays on bunts/weak grounders — and his huge contributions offensively. A slash of .275/.365/.525 is impressive regardless of one’s position, and such production from a catcher that also accumulated 19 homers and a wRC+ of 129 will be sorely missed over the next month.
There’s No Depth Behind Victor Caratini
While the Cubs thankfully have a more-than-capable backup in Victor Caratini, he alone can’t carry the entire load during Willson’s absence. Caratini has been a superlative back-up, not only excelling defensively but also producing at the plate. His solid triple slash (.258/.354/.435) has positioned him as a better-than-average bat (108 wRC+), and his everyday presence in the lineup mitigates the four week absence of Contreras as best as could be hoped for. Still, resolution of the back-up-to-the-back-up is now in order.
That Kyle Schwarber has been floated as an emergency option speaks volumes to the (lack of) faith they have in Taylor Davis. Outside of that glorious grand slam against the Cardinals earlier this year, Davis has been little more than organizational depth his entire career — that classic AAAA guy that you love to have stashed away and hope to never rely upon all that much.
This leaves outside help to be a foregone conclusion, and to that end the Cubs have a few options. Bleacher Nation tackles the obvious names here, including one (Rene Rivera) that could be traded for given his status in the Minors that just-so-happens to have organizational familiarity, and a recent free agent from Oakland (Nick Hundley).
Options are nice, of course, but of the three obvious candidates Jonathan Lucroy makes the most sense for the Cubs.
How Lucroy Fits
At age 33, and long past his prime with the Brewers, there’s not a whole lot to expect from a veteran like Lucroy. Of course, at this stage in the season with an emergency need expectations are lowered significantly, and to that end Lucroy checks all of the necessary boxes.
While his bat has dropped off dramatically over the years he’s still hitting an adequate .242/.310/.371, good for a wRC+ of 84 that’s just fine for a backup catcher. And while Fangraphs views his pitch framing as also having dropped off precipitously (-4.7 runs saved above average this year compared to a career best 42.4 in 2011) he remains a trusted veteran behind the dish that can still throw runners out (35.7 percent caught stealing in 2019). He’s also a notoriously good teammate that just might find that late-career spark so many vets do after yet another change-of-scenery, especially when thrust into a pennant race.
Lucroy’s release from the Angels comes with the expectation he’ll pass through waivers, as the roughly $1 million he’s owed isn’t exactly palatable. Once a free agent, the Cubs can pay him the remainder of 2019’s league minimum while Los Angeles foots the rest of his contract — something that fits within the Cubs’ precarious budget. Come September, when Contreras returns, Lucroy can serve as additional depth with expanded rosters, ensuring the Cubs can ease their star catcher back into playing shape.
Lucroy might not be a sexy option, but the Cubs hardly need that appeal. At his best he was an underrated star at a position that is generally undervalued. Now, nearing the latter stages of his career, he might just prove he has enough left in the tank to contribute to a contending team.
The Cubs need more than just a quality veteran presence, they need someone that can actually contribute with the bat. The Cubs could do worse than Jonathan Lucroy.
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