The Cubs lost a series against a bad team on the road. The NL Central has tightened into a crazy race which Myles wrote about yesterday. The series loss has affected the Cubs chances of making the postseason in a direct way. Baseball Prospectus had the Cubs odds of making the postseason at 74.4% and FanGraphs has the Cubs odds at 88.1% before the loss to Madison Bumgarner. Those marks are 3.8% and 3.4% lower respectively following the Cubs loss with Jose Quintana on the mound Tuesday. The Cardinals continue to win and have pulled into a tie with the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs playoff odds will certainly decrease again today, but the potential loss of Willson Contreras is of far greater concern long term.
Willson Contreras left the game yesterday with a leg injury. Myles recap conveyed the immediate reaction well, and Cubs beats reporters have presented the same general update on the situation. Contreras will head to Arizona to have an MRI done on Thursday. The results will be reported Friday, and the Cubs will make a decision on the roster at that point. It seems all but assured that Willson will head to the 10 day DL with Victor Caratini returning to the Cubs 25 man roster a few weeks earlier than expected. It is hard to know exactly what the damage is at this point, but it certainly looked like a hamstring issue when it happened. There is so little information available that a minimum stay of 10 days isn't out of the question, but the odds seem far greater that he will miss significant time. It isn't hyperbolic to suggest that his splendid sophomore campaign might be over.
The absence of Willson Contreras will put a serious strain on the Cubs chances of winning the division. The question is how much of a strain. The Cubs have to face the dangerous Diamondbacks in Arizona next, but the schedule becomes a lot easier afterwards as the Cubs face last place teams for 13 straight games. The Cubs have an opportunity there for an extended winning streak in the latter half of August before the also surging Pittsburgh Pirates come to Wrigley at the end the month. The Cubs play the teams chasing them for the division crown in 21 of the remaining 33 games to finish the season.
The slim chance that Willson Contreras only needs a minimum stay on the 10 day DL would have him eligible for the August 20th game against Toronto. He would have missed 9 of the remaining 49 games. That seems extremely optimistic given the early impressions. Contreras would have to be ready in 17 days to be back for the start of the division heavy final push of the season. A 4 week absence would mean the Cubs face the Pirates the final 7 times without their team MVP. 5 weeks would have Willson ready for the first of the final 7 games against the Cardinals. 6 weeks would have him ready at the start of the final 8 games at Milwaukee and then St. Louis. 7 weeks would bring Contreras back for the final games against Cincinnati. Any more than 2 months and the best we can hope for is setting up a Schwarber like return in the postseason.
The Cubs acquisition of Alex Avila looms even larger with these events. The Cubs have a credible catcher to play everyday, but there is going to be a dropoff between the red hot Contreras and the veteran Avila. Alex Avila is in the middle of his best offensive season since he was a 24 year old kid in 2011. His wOBA and TAv are stellar this season. Avila (.373) ranks only behind Buster Posey (.379) in wOBA among catchers with at least 250 PAs this season. Contreras ranks fourth with a .363 wOBA. Avila's TAv of .293 ranks only fifth among catchers with 250 PAs. Contreras is third with a .305. The season totals suggest that the Cubs shouldn't miss much in the batter's box with Avila becoming the primary catcher.
The issue is that Avila is unlikely to continue at this high level of production. Baseball Prospectus projects Avila to have 39 more PAs with a .254 TAv. The number of plate appearances is certainly going to go up, but there is little reason for Avila's expected production to go up with the increased playing time. Avila's offensive numbers have been trending steadily downward since a red hot start to the season. It also doesn't appear to be a matter of poor luck. The amount of hard contact Avila has been making has been following his wOBA production consistently throughout the season. The chart below shows the two lines, and it doesn't paint an encouraging picture for the remaining couple of months.
Willson Contreras was unlikely to continue on the .330/.394/.696 tear he had been on since July 1. That level of production isn't a fair expectation. Contreras was projected to have a TAv of .284 in his remaining plate appearances. He might have outperformed those numbers given the kind of contact he has been generating, but even his projected level of production would represent a substantial increase over what Avila can be expected to produce.
Offensive production is only part of the value a catcher provides a team. Contreras is a raw but extremely athletic receiver. The Cubs are going to experience a significant downgrade in this area. Avila ranks below Contreras in every defensive metric Baseball Prospectus has for catchers except throwing runs strangely enough, but Contreras arm will be sorely missed when Jon Lester is on the mound. It will be interesting to see if teams are more willing to run without an elite arm behind the plate protecting Lester. The Cubs increased reliance on pitching and defense with this blow to the lineup will make that an important storyline to follow.
It is unknown how long Willson Contreras is going to be gone. The worst case scenario would be Willson missing the rest of the season. A reasonable estimate of the value lost based on the projections at Baseball Prospectus would be about 1 win. It could be greater if Avila craters even more than expected. The numbers suggests that the Cubs playoff hopes shouldn't be too dented with an Avila-Caratini pairing behind the plate. The margin between the Cubs and Cardinals (and the rest of the NL Central) becomes a lot thinner, but the numbers point to the Cubs still having a strong chance to repeat as division champs.
Not everything can be measured of course. Willson Contreras means a lot to this team for his energy. Maddon referred to Contreras as being like oxygen with his arrival in 2016. The presence he has brought to the middle of the order is more than just the numbers. We also know that positive offensive production can amplify the production of others as negative offensive production has the inverse effect. There could be a hangover effect that isn't captured in the numbers as the Cubs adjust to life without Willson.
The final conclusion has to be that losing Willson Contreras for the season would be a major blow. In the short series of the postseason the effect would magnified as the rosters are "shortened". Getting there would be more challenging but certainly possible given the roster and remaining schedule. Hopefully, the scenario the Cubs find themselves in on Friday is a lot rosier than that.