The first big prospect wave isn't here yet. There's been some interesting guys trickle in over the past couple of years: Anthony Rizzo, Welington Castillo and Junior Lake to name a few. The big time prospects, including Javier Baez, are likely still at least another year away, so this year may be more of a peek at potential role players and relief pitchers -- and perhaps a starting candidate or two.
Players on the bubble
- Josh Vitters: It's been a frustrating year for Vitters. In a very small sample size there are numbers to suggest the light may be coming on as far as approach, but Vitters has not been able to stay healthy. What might be more frustrating is that some of that "bad luck" may have been brought on by Vitters himself. One scout noted he was about 15 pounds heavier after his rehab. Never known as a gym rat to begin with, Vitters doesn't seem to be moving in the right direction. He seemed reluctant to go to winter ball last offseason then quickly played his way off the roster, now he's had a series of injuries. I am only speculating here but sometimes I wonder if Vitters expects the big leagues to come to him. That ain't gonna happen. I hope I'm wrong and it's just been bad luck/circumstances because Vitters has as more natural ability as a hitter than any 3B on the roster right now. The question is whether he puts it to use.
- Brett Jackson: You never have to wonder about Jackson's effort. He gives it everything he has both during the season and the offseason. But the ability to make contact has become a serious issue and it has not improved even after tweaking his swing last year. Jackson has great athleticism and tools, but they can't be utilized unless he hits. He may still get a look this September, and if he does, he's going to have to show the Cubs he can at least make enough contact to be useful as an extra outfielder.
- Brooks Raley: Raley is another guy who could be fighting for his roster spot. Raley is an athletic pitcher but hasn't pitched with the command needed given his average stuff. Chris Rusin has been outperforming him at the MLB level while Zach Rosscup has caught up to him at the AAA level and may profile better in a relief role. Lefties Eric Jokisch and hard throwing Hunter Cervenka loom in AA. Is there room for all of them?
- Dave Sappelt: Sappelt's future is in question simply because the Cubs have repeatedly passed him up when they needed an extra outfielder -- even though Sappelt is already on the 40 man roster. The Cubs have added RH hitters Cole Gillespie, Thomas Neal, and Darnell McDonald rather than promoting Sappelt. They even earlier called up Bryan Bogusevic despite already being too left-handed in the OF. The writing may be on the wall for Sappelt, who has not impressed with his play either at Iowa or on the MLB roster.
Players auditioning for 2014 jobs
- Scott Baker: The Cubs were hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with the rehabbing Scott Baker but, for the time being, missed on what was perceived by many (including yours truly) as a good gamble for a potential #3 starter. The thought here was the Cubs did not acquire Baker to flip him, but rather to give him a close to full season audition for a better contract and a spot in the rotation. Unfortunately Baker had a couple of setbacks on the road back and is now just pitching in Daytona. His last outing was better in that he threw more strikes, but reports are the velo hasn't fully returned and that is further evidenced by a lack of missed bats since his return. Obviously Baker needs time to fully regain his strength, stamina, stuff, and command and we won't see the old Scott Baker this September, but the hope is you see enough of a glimpse to see if it's worth bringing him back.
- Alberto Cabrera: Cabrera has three things going for him: a fastball that can touch 97 (sits 92-94), a plus slider at times, and the fact that he will be out of options next spring. It's doubtful the Cubs want to lose a 24 year old arm of this caliber, so Cabrera may get a shot at the starting rotation but more likely will have to pitch out of the bullpen to start the year. Cabrera has conquered the AA level both as a starter and a reliever but has struggled with the long ball in three separate stints at Iowa. Command, especially keeping the ball down, is a key for him.
- Justin Grimm: Assuming the Cubs go with Samardzija, Jackson, Wood, and Arrieta as their top 4, the 5th spot will likely be a competition between Carlos Villanueva, Chris Rusin, Cabrera, possibly Baker, and Justin Grimm. Grimm may have the most upside, profiling as perhaps a #4 guy with his above average fastball and very good curve. Commanding those pitches, particularly the curve, which advanced hitters tend to lay off of more in the bigs (ask Rich Hill).
- Eduardo Sanchez: Sanchez is a bubble roster guy who has enough stuff to be in a big league pen but not enough command to make it matter much of the time. The Cubs lack for power arms, so he'll get every chance, but with Cabrera and Dolis out of options behind him, he's really going to have to impress to keep his spot. He's not going to be able to back into a bullpen job. He's going to need to earn it and he should get a chance to do that this September.
- Mike Olt: Olt seemed like a lock to get a tryout this September but he has continued to struggle at the AAA level and his numbers certainly don't merit a call-up. The Cubs could call him up to take a look and give him some big league coaching, as they did with Jackson and Vitters, and then give him the mulligan and see if he can come back strong one year removed from his vision issues. Olt is in a precarious position. The Cubs can get by in the short term with Valbuena and Murphy and there are two potential 3Bs behind him at AA in Villanueva and Baez. He will be 25 by the time September rolls around and, harsh as it may sound, he is going to have to figure it out quickly
- J.C. Boscan: Dioner Navarro will be a free agent and, while the Cubs would love to keep him, he may price himself out of a backup role. Boscan is a good defensive hitter who isn't going to give you much with the bat, so he probably profiles best as a 3rd/emergency type catcher.
- Ryan Sweeney: Sweeney was very impressive when he got his chance to play and showed himself capable of being a full-time player and at least adequately managing CF. He also showed a good approach and signs of tapping into the power potential many thought he always had in that 6'4", 220 lbs. frame. Barring a significant addition or two in the OF, I have to think he has the inside track on a starting job next year along with fellow lefty Bryan Bogusevic. He's coming off a broken rib injury and is on the 60 Day DL, so he'll have to be healthy and re-added to the roster.
40 man roster candidates who may get an early peek
There's really no need for these guys as it will be difficult to get them playing time. But Szczur is becoming a veteran of the 40 man roster and his time may finally come for his first taste of big league life.
- Matt Szczur: A call up for Matt Szczur is possible because he hits RH, can run, and can defend all 3 positions, so there's some utility here. The Cubs could have him leapfrog Dave Sappelt and give him some of Cole Gillespie's playing time.
- Christian Villanueva: Villanueva has quietly had a great season amid the acquisition of Mike Olt, the drafting of Kris Bryant, and the speculation of Javier Baez moving to 3B. has Vitters and Olt ahead of him on the depth chart, not to mention Luis Valbuena, who should be coming off the disabled list by then, and the red-hot Donnie Murphy (!!). Cody Ransom is also still around. If Vitters isn't healthy and the Cubs shut Olt down for the season, then maybe Villanueva gets a look. He needs to refine his approach, however, as he may not have enough power or hit tool to make up for a low walk rate.
Players looking for that 40 man roster spot and a call-up
There are other candidates who could be added and one that will certainly be added is Arismendy Alcantara, but after setting a career high in games played, it's probably time for Alcantara to shut it down. He's cooled off since the all-star break and fatigue may well be a factor. His time will come next season. A couple of sleepers to be added to the 40 man roster are Zach Cates and Hunter Cervenka. Cates has been inconsistent but has thrown 96 since moving into the pen. Cervenka is more at 91-93 with very good movement and as a lefty with a good fastball, could be vulnerable in the Rule 5. Neither would get a call-up, however, and even protection on the 40 man is far from guaranteed. Such are the pitfalls of building a deep system, you're going to lose some interesting talent-- but the fact that they are pitchers gives them a shot.
- Zach Rosscup: The 25 year old LHP acquired in the Matt Garza deal has a knack for missing bats with a deceptive fastball and a big-breaking curve. He just needs to throw strikes to avoid the fate of guys like Rich Hill and Jeff Beliveau -- two other lefties with similar stuff and huge minor league strikeout numbers who were derailed by an inability to find the zone. Rosscup has advanced to AAA and it's getting harder to imagine that the Cubs won't protect a lefty with the numbers he put up this year. He'd almost cerainly be selected in the Rule 5 draft.
- Jae-Hoon Ha: The defensively oriented Ha can play all 3 OF positions well, making up for a lack of top end speed with great instincts. He gets great jumps, takes efficient routes, and has enough arm to keep runners honest on the bases. The question with him is the bat. Ha hasn't shown much power, though he has increased his ISO to .142 at Iowa. He has a solid approach, working the count and able to draw an occasional walk. Good extra outfielder and with Sappelt on the bubble and lefties Nate Schierholtz, Ryan Sweeney, and Bryan Bogusevic all with a legit shot of cracking next year's roster, the RH hitting Ha may be a nice complement to the more offensively oriented side of the righy equation, Junior Lake. His biggest current obstacle is Matt Szczur, who offers a similar skill set but is already on the 40 man roster, so even if Ha gets added to the 40 man, it may not happen until after the season.
- Eric Jokisch: Jokisch is a long shot to get a look but with nearly two years at AA Tennessee, he has logged considerable innings at the upper levels. Similar to Chris Rusin, the lefty plays up an average fastball with a very good change-up. He's athletic, though that has yet to translate to consistent command, but like Rusin, when he's commanding his pitches, he can be awfully tough. May also throw a tick or so faster than Rusin. I suspect, however, that Jokisch will have to wait his turn as Rusin, Raley, and perhaps Rosscup are still ahead of him.
The Cubs would have loved to have been able to get a look at three hard-throwing righties out of the bullpen this September: Arodys Vizcaino, Rafael Dolis, and the side-arming Chang-Yon Lim. All are currently disabled and it's doubtful we see any of them this season. Vizcaino has already been ruled out and is a prime candidate for the fall league.
An interesting wildcard may be Marcos Mateo, who was throwing upwards of 97 mph with a nasty slider before his latest injury setback. He's pitched well at Iowa this year, showing command/control in a very short sample size. It's more likely the Cubs will try to keep him in a non-roster situation and give him a look this offseason and perhaps a spring training invite.
Filed under: Roster decisions