This isn't going to be the second edition of my roster predictions, though that is coming soon. This piece is more about the decisions that go into putting a roster together -- and we'll use the 2012 Cubs to illustrate some of those points.
It isn't purely about competition, as much as sometimes we'd like it to be. Most obviously, there are some veterans in place who have earned the right to keep their job based on past performance and not have to worry about hitting .400 every spring to keep their jobs. It doesn't make much sense to take a month's worth of hot hitting against sub MLB quality pitching over years of regular season production. Thus a player like David DeJesus, even though he's hitting .133, is going to keep his job over a kid who gets hot in the spring.
But that isn't the only factor in play, here are some of the other factors that Cubs management needs to deal with this spring...
1. Spring competition
- This only comes into play when there is uncertainty at a position, especially when there's a lack of an MLB track record. That's pretty much the case with the Cubs backup catcher position. It's now Clevenger vs. Castillo. As is often the case, however, it isn't strictly based on competition. More on that later.
- The same is true in the Cubs competition for the 5th outfielder spot. None of the 3 candidates: Joe Mather, Tony Campana, or Dave Sappelt has established themselves in the majors. Again, there are other factors which we'll discuss in the following sections.
- There are also situations where the last season has raised some question marks. That is the case with the Cubs starting pitching competition. Randy Wells, Chris Volstad, and Travis Wood all had down years and none have earned a rotation job based on their recent performance. Jeff Samardzija also has never done anything as a starter to warrant a guaranteed spot on the starting staff.
- There is also the LH bullpen spot left open by the Sean Marshall trade. The Cubs started with 3 unproven young lefties with upside in Jeff Beliveau, Scott Maine, and John Gaub competing. However, you don't want to leave yourself in a position where you get stuck when none of the the three are ready, so you bring in a veteran like Trever Miller to be the fallback guy. It's a good thing because both Beliveau and Gaub are already out of the picture.
2. Player Development
- In the catching competition example above, it isn't exactly a level playing field. Clevenger is thought to be the more polished hitter and has a lower overall ceiling. If this competition were to end in a tie or even if it's a slight "victory" by Castillo, Clevenger likely gets the nod because there is less development needed and he will basically be filling the role he's been expected to play, which is backup catcher. There isn't much room for growth. Castillo, on the other hand, is considered by many to have starting potential and may benefit from the additional playing time he'll get at AAA Iowa.
- This also plays a factor in the Cubs LH reliever competition. The Cubs, for example, have decided to give Jeff Beliveau, who has yet to pitch a full season of AA, some more time in the minors, and start the year with either Trever Miller or Scott Maine.
- Another case is Anthony Rizzo vs. Bryan LaHair. If this were an open competition, Rizzo would be on his way to landing the 1B job, but it isn't. The Cubs feel Rizzo has some things to work on, particularly with his swing and his footwork around first base and they'd rather he do that in AAA.
- You could make the argument that Brett Jackson needs to develop when it comes to contact skills and the Cubs may prefer he do that in Iowa rather than against more savvy MLB pitchers who can better exploit the holes in his swing.
3. Status on the 40 man roster
- Players who are already on the 40 man roster have an edge because the Cubs won't need to waive a player or use up an additional roster spot to keep them. In the case of the outfielders, Joe Mather has clearly outplayed both Dave Sappelt and Tony Campana, but the Cubs may have to risk losing someone else if they want to keep Mather. The Cubs have already waived Jeff Bianchi, Manny Corpas, Blake DeWitt, and Casey Weathers to make room for incoming players. So far they've only lost one, Jeff Bianchi, but the further they delve into the roster to waive a player, the more likely that they will lose him to another team.
- Trever Miller is not on the 40 man and the Cubs would have to make room for him if they want to keep him. It's complicated because the Cubs have to balance between being respectable now and saving their younger, higher ceiling arms for the future. The one guy who is certain to stay on the 40 man roster is Jeff Beliveau. If the Cubs want to keep Miller and keep the roster fluid, they may decide to waive a good arm like John Gaub, who has had all sorts of command/control issues and is already 27. That's not something they want to do ideally because Gaub would almost certainly be taken by another team and the Cubs aren't in the position to give talent away, even ones with very uncertain futures like Gaub.
- There is also competition between Blake DeWitt, who is not on the roster and Adrian Cardenas ,who is. They are similar players in that they are offense first LH bats with mediocre defense at best. This case isn't quite so complicated as the others, however, because if the Cubs decide to go with DeWitt, they can simply swap roster spots with Cardenas. Waiving Cardenas is risky in that he's young and has some talent, but with a still young DeWitt on the roster he'd become redundant anyway.
- Not being on the 40 man roster is one of several thing that works against Brett Jackson's bid to make the team.
4. Financial Considerations/Cost Control
- This mostly comes into play with top prospects like Brett Jackson and Anthony Rizzo, both of whom project as long term above average starters. By bringing them up later, the Cubs also delay their service time clock, possibly to the point where they can delay their free agency by a year. This isn’t as big an issue with the Cubs as, say the Rays, but even a wealthy, big market team would rather deal with arbitration and free agency later rather than sooner.
- Cost control also plays a factor when it comes to veterans. While it’s unlikely the Cubs will make a major trade this spring that will greatly affect the opening day roster, it does seem likely they’ll make moves as the season goes on. That potentially makes good players with less cost control available to other teams at some point during the season. Again, it’s not like the Cubs can’t afford to keep them, but the team won’t reach it’s goal of having a foundation for sustained success for a few years and many of those players will be in their 30s and free agents by then. The preference is to start with a younger,less expensive, more talented core. And they’d also like to free up payroll space that would be used for free agent upgrades down the road. Players like Marlon Byrd, Geo Soto, Jeff Baker, Paul Maholm, Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, and others are all candidates to be dealt if the right deal comes along. If they get a good offer sometime in the spring, the Cubs will have to decide if it's in their best long term interests to trade on of these players now and open up a roster spot for a younger player.
5. Short Term Fit
- There are short term needs to consider even in a rebuilding situation. The Cubs have stated their preference for a RH hitter off the bench to occasionally spell lefties David DeJesus, Ian Stewart, Bryan LaHair, and eventually Brett Jackson. Joe Mather can play all of their positions and bats right-handed. That gives him a decided advantage for one of the last spots.
- Wrigley plays as a big ballpark early in the season and they may prefer speed over power early on. That gives Tony Campana an advantage over someone like Joe Mather. One thing to consider, however, is that Joe Mather’s ability to play 1B and 3B may make Jeff Baker expendable this spring in a trade. Mather also has better speed and would be more useful early in the season. If the Cubs trade Baker, there may be a situation where both Mather and Campana make this team to start the season.
6. Long Term Fit
- This spring will be about their objective performance, but keep in mind that subjective evaluation also comes into play. The Cubs talent evaluators may decide that if Travis Wood and Randy Wells are close in terms of spring stats, it could come down to Wood having the higher ceiling and the guy they want to go with long term. Right now that doesn't appear to be an issue because Wood has pitched poorly.
- As I’ve mentioned before, the Cubs are not in a position where they can just throw away assets, and while some are eager to just get rid of Byrd to see Jackson play, Byrd does have value. That value comes in the form of adding a long term asset via trade. Interest in Byrd is expected to pick up among several teams by the end of the spring and into the season. Make no mistake here, the Cubs will get a prospect for Marlon Byrd when they decide to trade him.The question will be how good does that prospect have to be before the Cubs decide it’s worth it to part with Byrd and go with their CF of the future?
- Long term planning works against Welington Castillo for 2012. If he is indeed in the plans to be the Cubs long term everyday catcher, then he is better off in AAA for both player development reasons and cost control considerations.
- If you’re going to grab one of the last spots off the bench, it helps to be versatile on both offense and defense. Joe Mather has shown himself to possess both power and speed on offense and on defense he can fill in at 5 different positions (1B, 3B, LF, CF, RF). It gives him a decided advantage over Tony Campana and Dave Sappelt for one of the spots because he has the most diverse skill set off the bench. As mentioned earlier, it could also allow the Cubs to pick up a long term asset by dealing Jeff Baker.
- Clevenger has another advantage over Castillo in that he can fill in at 1B and even 3B in an emergency. He came up as a SS and, while he isn’t fast, he’s a better athlete than most catchers.
8. Available Options
- Once a player is put on the 40 man roster, he has 3 “options”, meaning the team can send him down to the minors for each of the next 3 years without exposing him to waivers first. Once a player is out of options, he must clear waivers before being assigned to the minors, so the team risks losing that player for nothing if he doesn't make the team.
- Marcos Mateo is the key player out of options for the Cubs. The others are veterans who are locks to make the team. Mateo isn’t a lock, but his option status gives him a decided advantage. Mateo has good stuff (97 mph fastball and hard slider) and solid peripherals which indicate he could be in for a good season. The combination of those two things make him a good bet to be taken by some team if he is placed on waivers. As mentioned many times, the Cubs are not in a position to give away assets no matter how seemingly small they are. Thus, if the Cubs don’t want to keep Mateo and instead keep Rafael Dolis (whom Dale Sveum is said to like a lot), then it’s more likely the Cubs will try to work out a minor deal with a team if they can. Without a deal, logistically it’s easier to keep Mateo on the roster and send Dolis down to the minors for more seasoning.
- Travis Wood is the key player who does have have an option remaining. This is important because he’s the only candidate out of the 4 guys vying for a rotation spot that can be sent to the minors without going through the waiver process. In a strictly logical sense, optioning Wood to the minors is the best option when it comes to roster management. However, you should be careful not to treat players as if they’re strictly commodities. Wood could complicate things by finishing strong, especially if Wells and Samardzija cool off from their hot starts. Wood is a player with parts of two seasons experience, one of which was fairly successful. How do you justify sending him down if he clearly looks like one of your 5 best starters by the end of the spring? Just because you can send a player it doesn't always mean you should. If Wood finishes the spring strong and looks like one of the Cubs 5 best starters, then I believe the Cubs will find a way to keep him in the rotation, even if it means putting Wells in the bullpen or perhaps trading him for a prospect.
9. Rule 5 Draftees
- This applies to Lendy Castillo. As a rule 5 pick, he is automatically given a spot on the 40 man roster and the Cubs have to keep him on the 25 man roster all season or offer him back to the Phillies for $25,ooo, which seems like a bargain given the way Castillo has looked this spring. The only other option is that the Cubs could make a minor deal to keep him where they trade a lesser prospect in exchange. They have some leverage as a rebuilding team in that the Phillies know the Cubs can afford to keep him on the roster all year if they choose. The Phillies may choose to cut bait and at least get a useable player in exchange. That may benefit both teams and Castillo himself because a deal would mean the Cubs could send him to the minors and allow him to develop. The Cubs have been impressed with Castillo and a decision with him could go down to the wire.
- The Cubs have two players they may get back themselves in Ryan Flaherty and Marwin Gonzalez. It looks very unlikely that Flaherty comes back at this point as he’s having a nice spring and the Orioles are in a similar position as the Cubs where they can afford to use a roster spot and make a small sacrifice for the present to be able to keep a player they could use down the road. The Orioles lack talent throughout their organization and it would seem foolish for them to keep a veteran over Flaherty. The other player, Marwin Gonzalez is having a tough spring and the Cubs could get him back and send him to Iowa without having to put him on the 40 man roster (this happened with Randy Wells a few years ago). With so many utility infielders in camp, they probably don’t need Gonzalez but considering he’s younger, they may well take him back and release a veteran like Matt Tolbert, Edgar Gonzalez, or Alfredo Amazega instead.
In short, roster decisions are more complicated than judging who the best 25 players are or which players have had the best spring. There are many factors that come into play and most of the time, your opening day roster is not the same as the 25 best players in your organization. If you’re scratching your head as to why Brett Jackson, Rafael Dolis, and Anthony Rizzo don’t make the team while someone like Adrian Cardenas or Marcos Mateo does, that can be answered by applying one or more of the 9 reasons listed above .