Watching the Cubs this year is like watching a season of ‘‘The Walking Dead,’’ and it’s not just because they’re starting a 10-game road trip Thursday.
Bullpen problems, financial constraints, key injuries, incompetence on the road — nothing can kill the Cubs’ playoff hopes in 2019.
If the mediocrity of the National League Central this year wasn’t enough to suggest the Cubs are living a charmed life, check out the latest rabbit team president Theo Epstein pulled out of his hat — or, more accurately, the rabbit that fell into his hat — this week:
Just when new rules made significant acquisitions in August nearly impossible, two-time All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy landed on the free-agent market — just in time for the Cubs to pounce and sign him Wednesday for the prorated major-league minimum salary after they beat the Athletics 10-1 in the final game of a 5-1 homestand.
“To kind of just fall into that and have a guy available of his stature, I think it’s unbelievable,” starter Kyle Hendricks said, speaking for many in and around the Cubs’ clubhouse.
Lucroy, who will join the Cubs on Thursday in Cincinnati for the opener of a four-game series, was waived by the Angels this week and signed as soon as he cleared waivers Wednesday, just four days after Cubs starting catcher Willson Contreras was lost for more than a month with a hamstring injury.
Talk about a charmed existence.
The Cubs were getting by with backup Victor Caratini as a first-time everyday catcher and career minor-leaguer Taylor Davis as their big-league backup. Davis was optioned back to Class AAA on Wednesday.
The timing and happenstance couldn’t have been more perfect for the Cubs’ needs.
Before this season, Lucroy could have been traded in August while on waivers, which the Angels certainly would have attempted if only to get a prospect in return or mitigate some of the $1 million or so they must pay of his remaining salary.
The Cubs would have been limited in their ability to compete under those circumstances because their payroll budget is tapped (which is why they didn’t claim him and accept the salary). Also under the old rules, teams often blocked others’ claims, with the original teams then often revoking the waivers. Because claims were awarded based on reverse order of standings, any division rival would have been in position to block a Cubs claim under the old system.
This year the waivers are irrevocable. You block, you buy.
“To get a player of that caliber right now with everything that’s going on for us, we’re pretty fortunate with the new rules,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We’re really excited.”
Lucroy, who struggled offensively this year before suffering a concussion in a collision at the plate a month ago, has caught four Cubs pitchers in recent seasons: Tyler Chatwood with the Rockies in 2017 and Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish and Derek Holland before that.
“It’ll be an easier transition than when most guys come in,” said Hamels, who starts Thursday. “He’s experienced. He’s one of the best catchers in the league, he studies, is a decent hitter, which helps. And at this point in his career he really wants to win. So this is a tremendous opportunity for him to be able to do that.”
Hamels said the biggest thing he wants to see is that Lucroy is fully recovered after suffering a broken nose from the frightening collision with the Astros’ Jake Marisnick on July 7.
“The reports are good,” Maddon said. “We did a lot of calling and talking. Everything seems to be in good order. There’s no negative commentary at all.”
Lucroy, 33, played one game since the injury, going 2-for-4 with a double.
“He’s well. He’s fine. He’s feeling good,” Maddon said. “We’ll put him back there and try not to beat him up. And he’s got a history of hitting this time of year also.”