By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Holding a 13-3 record since the All-Star break, the Cubs welcomed new teammates in left-handed reliever Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila to their new surroundings at Wrigley Field on Tuesday ahead of opening a three-game series against the Diamondbacks.
The hope is that with Wilson in the back end of the bullpen and Avila backing up Willson Contreras at catcher, the Cubs have the final pieces of a puzzle to defend their NL Central crown and make a deep postseason run.
While Wilson won’t be the close in Chicago like he was Detroit as Wade Davis keeps the ninth inning on lockdown, the Cubs believe Wilson’s impact can be similar to that of Aroldis Chapman in 2016 after he was also acquired in a July trade. Chapman became the go-to arm for manager Joe Maddon, and Wilson will now become a trusted reliever in high-leverage situations.
“I am just so excited to be here,” Wilson said. “I have been welcomed greatly, and now all I want to do is go win ball games. I was not surprised to get traded or come here. I am just relieved it is over. I can’t be more excited to be here.”
Wilson will be the primary left-handed setup man for the Cubs, while Carl Edwards will handle that duty from the right side. Like he encountered with Chapman, Maddon has to weigh how much of a burden to saddle Wilson with. Will he take the ball two days in a row? Will he close if Davis needs a day off?
From the sounds of it, Maddon will use a conservative approach, at least for the time being.
“Look at those eight names we have out there now,” Maddon said. “They are all really good. In my mind’s eye, the best way to go about this is not to abuse anybody. We will spread out the work. He is equally as good against lefties and righties. He actually may be even better against right-handed hitters. There is no concern with that. We have CJ on the other side who is the same way right-handed. We hopefully spread it out and have them all well at the end of the season.”
The lefty-swinging 30-year-old Avila has had a Chicago experience before, playing for the White Sox in 2016. His primary role will be catching a couple of days a week to give the improving Contreras some more rest. Avila also gives Maddon freedom to make double switches as well in a way that he couldn’t when Miguel Montero and Victor Caratini were backing up Contreras this season.
“Alex is not a backup catcher,” Maddon said. “He is not that, he is not a backup catcher. Look at his OPS versus right-handed pitchers (.898), he is right up there with a lot of really good left-handed hitters. We will try to get him in there, but we have four left-handed pitchers we face going into the Giants series. We want to play him against righties, but I don’t want to beat up (Contreras) either.”
The Cubs clubhouse was pleased by the new additions.
“Like I said, Theo (Epstein) and Jed (Hoyer) are always going to do what is best for this organization,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Bringing in Justin Wilson, a dominant left-handed pitcher and putting him into the back end of the pen. Avila has a lot of experience and is only going to help with what we already have here as far as what we are trying to do.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.