How the Cubs might withstand a lengthy absence of Willson Contreras

PHOENIX — If an MRI exam 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 to respond to Contreras’ loss Friday — was mitigated because it happened in the first week of the season, the position was deep and it meant a better defender subsequently played left field.

Results of Contreras’ MRI exam and an estimated timeline for his return are expected Friday.

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

Willson Contreras

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:

1. The division stinks.

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

2. The Cubs still can 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. Kyle Hendricks, the 2016 ERA champ, is working back into form since a seven-week stay on the disabled list. And newly acquired Jose Quintana has significantly changed the look of the starting depth.

Even the bullpen, which 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.

3. The schedule falls in 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, three at Cincinnati and three at Philadelphia. That stretch is followed by 11 consecutive games against two more teams with losing records (entering Thursday): the Pirates (seven games) and the Braves.

And if they still have work to do in the last three weeks, fourteen of their last 22 games — including eight of the last 11 — are against the Brewers and Cardinals.

4. Alex Avila.

After hastily shipping out Miguel Montero on 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 to Contreras.

Avila, a starter for much of his career, has caught three of the Cubs’ five starters and called the transition to the staff smooth 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.

5. 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 MVP voting. Bryant won it; Rizzo finished fourth.

Both are having good seasons, but they’re 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, it will go a long way toward offsetting the production loss of Contreras, who has been the team’s top hitter since early July.

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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