Almora, Contreras Helping Save Cubs as Depth Gains in Importance

  1. Dexter Fowler CF
  2. Ben Zobrist 2B
  3. Anthony Rizzo 1B
  4. Kyle Schwarber LF
  5. Jorge Soler RF
  6. Miguel Montero C
  7. Tommy La Stella 3B

If you didn’t know any better, you might think that that was a lineup run out by Joe Maddon on a getaway day in 2016. Of course, you do know better (and probably recognized, in any case, that there are only seven players on that list): this is a list of Cubs players who have missed time significant time this season due to injury. The issue has been particularly prominent lately: recent bumps and bruises (or, er, barking back muscles) kept Rizzo and Zobrist out of action against St. Louis and Miami, and Fowler and La Stella’s ongoing DL stints have exacerbated some of the issues presented by Schwarber and Soler’s longer-term absences. Taken in combination, these losses might have been a recipe for disaster, perhaps the only thing that could derail a club poised for National League domination.

Yet, the Cubs are 49-26 (entering play on Tuesday), lead the NL Central by a cool ten games, and are three ahead in the loss column on San Francisco, the NL’s second-best team. Why? One might jump to the easiest conclusion—that the Cubs have been lucky this year, balancing out the impact of injuries—but Carlos Portocarrero recently dispelled that notion. It’s not luck. So what is it? Fact is, it’s depth: and depth that was planned for. We now see the Cubs at their 2016 nadir, coming off a week in which they were handed a sweep at the hands of the Cardinals and dropped three of four to the surprisingly-competitive Marlins. Any other team would be reeling, yet the Cubs appear to be on the verge of again tapping into their wealth of talent—and swagger—in pursuit of another winning streak.

The primary reason for the club’s recent skid has been those injuries detailed above; the primary antidote has been a host of solid and exceptional performances from players up and down their evolving 25-man roster. Going into 2016, the Cubs’ major-league roster boasted impressive depth. Redundancies in the infield and outfield were plenty, with Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and Kris Bryant all capable of handling multiple positions. It was enough to make Joe Maddon’s roster the envy of the league. But the major-league roster wasn’t the only place that Theo Epstein had stashed the organization’s surplus talent: Triple-A Iowa boasted major-league ready prospects in Willson Contreras and Albert Almora, Jr.. That was, in fact, the plan. Combined with the reacquisition of Chris Coghlan, the Cubs were sure to put themselves in the best possible position to guard against the devastation caused by injuries. The front office just wasn’t going to allow injuries to derail a season that they knew, even in the offseason, could be special.

Contreras and Almora represented the last phalanx of 2016 depth, and they’ve performed admirably in that role so far. Contreras has hit like Johnny Bench’s lost son, with a .370/.485/.741 line and three home runs in ten short games. He’s been so good, in fact, that he’s forced Joe Maddon’s hand, as Miguel Montero and David Ross have returned to re-occupy the space between batter and umpire and Anthony Rizzo reclaims his first base spot after a few games off. Speaking about Contreras’s outfield starts, Maddon said, “If he’s not starting as a catcher, somewhere else on the field… you still have the ability to put him back behind the plate…. Of course his arm is a weapon, so you put him behind the plate.”

Schwarber’s ACL injury might have been the death rattle on another team with a good-but-aging catching tandem, but Contreras has provided a healthy backstop alternative and a plus-bat over the past two weeks. Cubs brass pulled the trigger on a Contreras promotion not only because he tore up the PCL with a 20-game hitting streak and OPS over 1.000, but because the major-league roster began to feature more Band-Aids than Epstein and Maddon desired. Running Montero out every day, and against left-handed pitching, is suboptimal, especially with Fowler and Rizzo out, so even a merely serviceable Contreras would have been a net positive.

Almora has also been a shot of health, youth, and defense at a crucial time in the Cubs’ season. While he began his major-league career at the beginning of the month with occasional starts in left field and pinch-hit appearances, Almora has found himself the starter in center field for the duration of the Cubs’ skid, in every game but one since Fowler found the DL. While Almora hasn’t quite hit like George Foster to Contreras’s Bench, he’s been adequate at the plate (five doubles complement his .283 batting average), and exceptional in the outfield. With Heyward flanking him to his left, the Cubs feature a formidable outfield defense, even with unknown outfield quantity Contreras and the below-average Coghlan in left. Few teams have the ability to lose a prospective All-Star starter and replace him with a Gold Glove-capable defender, let alone one who might yet hit major-league pitching well, but the organization believed in Almora to capably fill that role.

Contreras and Almora have helped mitigate disaster in Cubdom over the last two weeks. Following Kris Bryant’s historic night in Cincinnati and Anthony Rizzo’s recent tear, it’s unlikely that the Cubs will continue to slide back toward the rest of the National League’s contenders, so their performances, bridging the gap between injuries and slumps, have been instrumental. Epstein surely had the opportunity to package Contreras and Almora with other high-profile Cubs minor leaguers for starting pitching, a corner outfielder, or a reliever this offseason, but his plan was larger: to raise the team’s baseline performance by keeping high-minors talent in the organization in case of injury. The assembly of the core of the 2016 Cubs might have been a virtuosic roster construction symphony, but it was his investment in a supporting cast ranging from the defensive-minded Almora, to the thumper Contreras, to the versatile Baez, that has kept the Cubs from hitting a true low.

Lead photo courtesy Steve Mitchell—USA Today Sports.

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