Which players will form the Cubs taxi squad in 2020?

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With MLB implementing a 60-game schedule set to kick off in late July, and the MLBPA signing off on a July 1st report start date for a three week ramp up for training, lets assume all of the health and safety protocols will be met and break down which 60 players the Cubs could bring north with them to participate throughout the 2020 season.

Teams will be able to carry 30 players on their active roster for the first two weeks of the season. The following two weeks that number is trimmed to 28 before finally settling on the new standard of 26 players that was set to be instituted this season.

Beyond the 30 players that will open the season in Chicago, another 30 players will form a tax squad which will serve as a pseudo-Minor League system. This taxi squad will not be playing games or function as a AAA team however. Envision it as Spring Training workouts without the games. Players will stay in game shape by practicing and working on skills development.

As MLB rosters shrink to normal size during the first month, the taxi squad will grow correspondingly to 32 and finally 34 players. As of now, it appears the Cubs squad will practice nearby at the newly renovated facilities of their Midwest League affiliate in South Bend.

Current 40-man roster

The core of the 60 players will of course be formed by the club's 40-man roster. As a reminder, here is how the Cubs roster currently stands:

SP (11): Darvish, Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood, Mills, Alzolay, Rea, Cotton, T. Miller, Steele

RHRP (11): Kimbrel, Jeffress, Wick, Sadler, Megill, Underwood Jr., Winkler, Tepera, Maples, Norwood, Rodriguez

LHRP (2): Ryan, Wieck

C (3): Contreras, Caratini, Amaya

IF (8): Rizzo, Hoerner, Bryant, Baez, Bote, Descalso, Z. Short, Ro. Garcia

OF (5): Schwarber, Happ, Heyward, Souza Jr., Almora Jr.

Prominent non-roster invites from Spring Training

Because the taxi squad won't be playing actual games, there will not be a need to get as specific with filling out a complete roster with overlapping coverage at each position. The Cubs can instead focus on the handful of players that were already challenging for roles with the 2020 club before Spring Training was interrupted. The four that made the best case were:

2B Jason Kipnis, C Josh Phegley, CF Ian Miller, and LHRP Rex Brothers

I actually believe that at least half of these players will be added to the 40-man roster so that they can participate as part of the expanded 30/28-man rosters the first month of the season. Kipnis appeared to be in line to displace Daniel Descalso as the platoon 2B and left-handed bat off the bench. I still expect that roster move to occur.

From there it gets a little more hazy. All three of the remaining players from the list above are likely to play a role on the active roster during the year, but it is important to keep in mind amidst all of the talk of the expanded rosters that the 40-man roster rules still apply. To make the active 26/28/30-man roster room must be made on the 40-man first.

One move I expect to see will be Manuel Rodriguez being placed on the 60-day IL. The Cubs added the young reliever to the roster last fall to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft was injured late in Spring Training. While I have not seen specifics on the injury, I do recall hearing some rumblings that it was arm related. As Rodriguez was not expected to impact the AAA, let alone the MLB roster this season, it seems like an easy decision to place him on the 60-day IL. This will enable better use of his roster spot and allows them to play it safe with his injury, regardless of its severity.

So that frees up one additional spot for either Phegley, Miller or Brothers. The only other 40-man spots taken up by prospects who weren't expected to make the AAA team are occupied by Justin Steele and Miguel Amaya. Could I envision the club using minor injuries with either as justification for moving them to the 60-day IL? Sure, but those players do need to be injured, a doctor needs to sign off on it, and I'm sure the league is going to be closely monitoring all teams to make sure this type of move isn't abused.

What may be more likely to come into play is that the Cubs currently have a huge number of right-handed relievers on their 40-man roster. Assuming no other players come down with injury that enable them to utilize the 60-day IL, that leaves Rule 5 pick Trevor Megill, out-of-options Duane Underwood Jr. potentially vulnerable.

Also keep an eye on Ryan Tepera, Dillon Maples, and James Norwood. All three are talented, but each will be burning their final Minor League option year in 2020. Colin Rea, Jherel Cotton, and Robel Garcia will have one additional option year available in 2021 but if any of them falter they could end up on the chopping block as well.

Other veteran non-roster invites from Spring Training who could receive taxi squad consideration include: LHRP Danny Hultzen, LHRP C.D. Pelham, C/UT P.J. Higgins, UT Trent Giambrone, and UT Hernan Perez. The Cubs are thin at LHRP and SS so I think Hultzen and one of Giambrone or Perez have the best odds.

Higgins had a nice spring, but given the allowance for a DH, expanded benches, and short season his versatility as both a catcher and infielder become less valuable. He's actually a player more suited to the short benches teams used in previous seasons. Given Phegley likely has the veteran 3rd catcher spot sewn up, and the Cubs have both Amaya and Kyle Schwarber available in a pinch, they may see Higgins as a luxury. However, given all the side work pitchers will be doing, it is also possible the club will simply need extra catchers (just like in Spring Training) to handle the workload in practices.

Prospects

All of the above is a roundabout way of saying I expect the Cubs to utilize approximately 45 of the 60 slots on their 40-man roster and then a handful of players that would have formed the core non-roster players for Iowa this season. That leaves anywhere from 12-15 slots available for the organization's top prospects to participate and make up for some of the lost development time.

First up, that means Brailyn Marquez, Brennen Davis, and 2019 1st rounder Ryan Jensen are locks. We don't need a debate here.

I also believe it is safe to assume upper level starting pitchers Cory Abbott, Keegan Thompson and Jack Patterson will be included. We all know there could be multiple spots in the Cubs rotation up for grabs next spring. I imagine the club wants to work with that trio and let them match up against high level hitters this summer in preparation for the rotation competition expected to occur whenever next season begins.

That leaves anywhere from 5-10 spots available for:

RHP: McAvene, R. Thompson, Franklin, Rucker, Mekkes, Uelmen 

LHP: Little

IF: Rivas, C. Morel, Strumpf, Weber, Ademan

OF: Roederer

My priority would be Michael McAvene, Riley Thompson, Kohl Franklin, Luis Rivas and Cole Roederer. After that it gets a little fuzzy.

Michael Rucker and Dakota Mekkes have middle relief talent and are close to MLB-ready, but the Cubs already have a lot of right-handed relief depth for this year. Erich Uelmen performed well in the 2019 AFL, and the Cubs will need to make a 40-man decision on him this winter. The same goes for his fellow 2017 draftee Brendon Little. The lefty former 1st rounder has been inconsistent and suffered some nagging injuries. Could they use this opportunity as a last barometer, or have the already made a decision regarding his upside?

Former top prospect Aramis Ademan will also face Rule 5 eligibility this offseason. The shortstop's progress has stalled in High-A the past two years. Do the Cubs want or need to see more before making a decision on him?

The projected Myrtle Beach infield of Chase Strumpf, Andy Weber and Christopher Morel will draw some consideration depending on how many taxi squad spots end up available. Morel possesses the greatest upside and is also in need of the greatest refinement. I'd lean toward him as my priority from that group, but Strumpf is probably the most ready for the challenge.

Draft Picks

I'm on the fence when it comes to including 2020 1st round pick Ed Howard in the group of 60. I see the merits, but if the Cubs actually believe an expanded Arizona Fall League can be arranged Howard may be better suited for that environment. I will support whichever decision the Cubs make with the young shortstop.

There is almost no debate in my eye when it comes to 2nd round lefty Burl Carraway. His stuff is electric. It is already MLB caliber. What he needs is refinement with his control and this seems like the perfect environment in which to work with him on it.

No Brandon Morrow

You may have noticed one prominent NRI from this spring not included above. That is because according to reports Brandon Morrow will not be an option for the Cubs this season. There was no reason given, and I know the most likely explanation is that his arm just never responded as he hoped this year, but I also think it is possible Morrow simply decided the risk of pitching under these circumstances (with little financial incentive in his case) as simply too great.

My best guess

Opening Day 40-man Roster:

SP (11): Darvish, Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood, Mills, Alzolay, Rea, Cotton, T. Miller, Steele

RHRP (10): Kimbrel, Jeffress, Wick, Sadler, Megill, Underwood Jr., Winkler, Tepera, Maples, Norwood

LHRP (2): Ryan, Wieck

C (4): Contreras, Caratini, Phegley, Amaya

IF (8): Rizzo, Hoerner, Bryant, Baez, Bote, Kipnis, Z. Short, Ro. Garcia

OF (5): Schwarber, Happ, Heyward, Souza Jr., Almora Jr.

Removed (2): Rodriguez (60-Day), Descalso

Additional 20 players for taxi squad

*UPDATE: I forgot that Rodriguez and Descalso will occupy two spots, at least initially, even if they are eventually removed from 40-man, so below list was updated to only include 18 players. The players under consideration could make their way as injury replacements (if that is going to be allowed):

RHP (6): Rucker, Mekkes, Abbott, K. Thompson, Jensen, McAvene

LHP (5): Brothers, Hultzen, Marquez, Patterson, Carraway

C (1): Higgins

IF (3): Giambrone, Perez, Rivas

OF (3): I. Miller, B. Davis, Roederer

Also under consideration: SS Weber, SS Ademan, SS Howard, 2B Strumpf, 3B C. Morel, OF Zagunis, OF Dewees, RHP Adam, RHP Uelmen, RHP R. Thompson, RHP Franklin, LHP Pelham, LHP Olson, LHP W. Short, LHP Little

Comments

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  • Well done, Michael. I'm also interested in seeing the various strategies involving teams carrying players on the taxi squads who are actually needed to fill spots on the MLB roster vs. development time for top picks. With the uncertainty of anything going forward, I wouldn't be surprised to see teams "waste" a spot or two simply to get these top picks involved.

    MLB has suggested that teams attempt to locate these squads within 100 miles of the big-league stadium to minimize (eliminate) commercial air travel and keep these roster moves within driving range. I haven't seen anything official, but general sentiment is the Cubs squad will be based in South Bend.

    Of course, the DirtyBirds have already been granted an exemption to this rule, and will work their squad out of Springfield, MO, over 200 miles away, even though they have a much closer affiliate in Peoria. Because, of course they do.

  • I am eager to see how Carraway looks at whatever level he is. My suspicion is he arrives in the bigs quickly.

  • In reply to IVYADDICT:

    I can't see how he's not in the fold. As Michael said his stuff is MLB-ready now. He has two plus pitches that already dominate.

    Spending high draft picks on arms that project as strictly relievers has always been taboo, but I see that changing. The game is changing. Relievers now are a far more instrumental part of the game plan. I like this pick.

    The risk, much like a big bat that has no defensive value, is that there is no fallback plan if things go awry.

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    Agree with this as an organization you always try to stay ahead of the trends around the league. The value of an ace swing and miss type relief pitcher is even higher then a year ago, given the new rules around the league. The era of same sided specialists like a Brian Duensing are probably over now with rules now forcing relievers to face at least 3 batters minimum. The cubs may not have many high end starter prospects, but they now have a number of interesting relief arms besides Callaway. I think Jensen and Marquez both have a shot to be outstanding relief pitchers if they can't stick as starters. And to me there's a reasonable chance of Marquez becoming a reliever, unless he can further improve his command/secondaries. Not to say he doesn't have the upside to stick as a starter. It seems likely that the organization will have to continue to buy starting pitching with Jon Lester's contract years dwindling down. If that's the position they're in then they going to need to be able to develop high end relief pitchers at least out of their system to save money there. With the way the game/analytics are trending with starters increasingly not being allowed to go around the batting order 3 times the value of the relief pitcher has arguably never been higher. I hope these relief pitcher type of draft picks pan out as they hope, because as you said these picks aren't starting pitching prospects for a reason. They all have command and secondary pitch flaws that they'll have to overcome.

  • In reply to kkhiavi:

    Cubs are staring to develop a lot of potential SP/multi-inning reliever types who are capable of missing bats. Beyond Marquez and Jensen, there's Alzolay (who could potentially fill that role as early as this year).
    McAvene, R. Thompson, Bigge, Sanders and Clarke are righties that also fit that mold, along with Steele and Patterson from the left side.

  • In reply to IVYADDICT:

    Question, if a taxi squad rookie makes it to the bigs does it count as service time towards arbitration?

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    So who has better stuff and who is closer to the bigs--Jensen or Carraway? I know there was some talk of Jensen trying to be a starter, but with a short season outs are so important and throwing 95-100 is a way to do it, especially with a plus secondary pitch.
    Thanks again Michael. It's so good to talk baseball and baseball prospects again.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    Carraway is probably closer simply because his role will smaller.

    Cubs are working Jensen as a starter, so while his 2FB/4FB/SL mix is similar to Carraway's 4FB/CV combo in terms of potential, Jensen needs to develop his changeup and needs to refine his control into command. The reason I remain hopeful regarding Jensen as a starter is he was reportedly able to maintain his 95+ velo throughout the length of his starts, where as Carraway's velo reportedly dipped when asked to work multiple innings.

    Carraway will be able to get away with just controlling his two pitches. His stuff is good enough that he can get away with leaving the ball over the plate at times. He just needs to limit free passes. And since he will rarely be tasked with getting more than 3 outs and will never have to face a hitter multiple times he can just focus on his two plus pitches and not need to worry so much about sequencing and hitting corners.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    While Jensen and Marquez may both eventually end up in the pen, I believe the Cubs are justified in developing them as starters because they hold their velocity well. Giving them a chance to develop a third pitch and reasonable command is the way to go because if they can get either to pan out it is a huge boost to their future rotation.

    I'm more on the fence regarding McAvene. I'm not as convinced he can hold his velo for 6+ innings on a consistent basis. He's never done it before. Doesn't mean he can't, and I don't blame the Cubs if they want to give him a year to try it, but if there isn't ample evidence he can sustain it during 2021, I don't want them to hesitate converting him back into a full-time BP arm, even if they envision him as a multi-inning BP arm.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Will the rule that a RP have to face 3 batters be in force for this season?
    I'm hoping that Marquez can stay a starter, then we have an elite pitcher as our #1. Not that #1 pitchers aren't elite, but some are more difficult to face than others.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    I haven't seen anything that changes the 3-batter minimum rule, but I haven't read the agreement. Lots of things have changed. The sides are negotiating both this season and next in anticipation of the virus being around. Not to get political, but remember when election season was around 6 months, and now it's perpetual? This has been an early negotiation of the CBA that expires after 2021.

    I know universal DH will be in effect for this year, but I think the insistence of it being instituted for next season has been dropped, as has some of the roster demands. Everything is crazy right now.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    Baseball is going to look way different this year. Here is a list of rule changes coming in 2020.

    https://boston.cbslocal.com/2020/06/24/major-league-baseball-mlb-2020-rules-regulations-covid-19-return-testing-season-spitting/

  • Baseball has always been a huge part of my life....but.....sorry.....this just won’t seem anything close to what it should be. I would seriously just be fine with starting fresh in the Spring. Not in favor of the extra inning gimmick at all either......

  • In reply to Wickdipper:

    Yeah, it doesn’t get more artificial than that. Speedster pinch-runners will have inflated value. Theo: sign Usain Bolt.

    This may as well be designated the asterisk season.

  • In reply to IVYADDICT:

    Ivy and Wdipper, I can understand your skepticism of some new rules, and how they might work out. I’m not meaning this to be argumentative.
    But I've played fast pitch softball, coached at decent levels of it and have watched plenty of the top collegiate softball teams play - over the years. At first the rule of starting each extra inning with a runner on second, seemed strange and unnecessary to me. But honestly over time, I definitely have come around to being a fan of it. I’ll find it interesting over the course of 60 games, how many of you might like it, too.
    Now if robo ump gets instituted, I’ll really be a happy man.
    BTW, for Father’s Day, my daughter gave me some of Ian Happs ‘Quarantine Coffee for Covid Relief’. Good coffee and a good cause.

  • In reply to cubbustible:

    My opposition to that rule is curiously related to the sign-stealing fiasco, in addition to being artificial. If someone earned his way to 2nd base, sign stealing is legit. To start already at 2nd is outrageously stupid, IMHO.

  • In reply to cubbustible:

    Is it necessary given the larger roster and taxi squad? I would can the thought for 2020.

    I prefer each base is earned, not given. I understand why in softball as it is such a pitcher dominant game—I think that it was originally used.

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    Your point well taken about the pitcher dominance in softball. But I do think that baseball would rather not see these games, dragged out. And maybe in line with what your saying - starting each extra inning with a runner on first, might be a better way to go- if this is ever given serious consideration.
    But as Naujack mentions below, I also feel this is the season for experimentation.
    I still would bet, that a number of folks here, will warm up to the idea. Just MHO.

  • In reply to cubbustible:

    I do not hate the idea. It just seems too artificial for baseball. I could actually see it happen though.

    Not sure a 60 game season would be best for experiments. Every game matters even more so make the 60 really count and be earned. Try it in the AFL and then ST in 2021 to get a read on it.

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    The new extra inning rule has been used in the minors leagues the last 2 years. The rule was pioneered in the World Baseball Classic and was tested in the Gulf Coast League and Arizona League before 2018.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    Heres the article I saw this in.

    https://mlb.nbcsports.com/2020/06/23/mlb-to-use-the-runner-on-second-rule-for-extra-innings-this-year/

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    It makes sense in a tournament where you have select days to finish a lot of games. Too lazy to look it up as I don’t recall, but did a game ever go extras in the WBC? I would think that would have got a lot of press being the first time the rule was in effect involving MLB players.

    Thanks for sharing the info.

  • In reply to Wickdipper:

    I hear your point, and truly understand it. MLB is trying to make something out of the situation.

    2020 is now a year MLB should test a lot of stuff all at the same time. I always wanted to see the idea that the DH had to change when the starting pitcher was pulled. I always found the AL lack of lineup changes less entertaining.

    My fingers are crossed 2021 is back to normal.

  • I would like for the Cubs to at least partially return to the OLD system of breaking young pitchers into the MLB by using them as REAL middle relievers, allowing them to throw three or even four innings from time to time. I hate it when a pitcher comes in and dominates for one inning and then leaves the game. If his stuff looks good, let him start another inning. if successful, it eliminates the need for a 13th pitcher who is seldom used anyway. Asking a pitcher like Jensen or Marquez to throw two or three innings twice a week gives them great experience, and gets them ready to be a starter, who seldom go further than six innings anyway in this day and age.

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    In reply to DaveP:

    That's a great idea Dave. Sometimes the old ways are the best.

  • In reply to DaveP:

    I do believe this method has already made a comeback, and is growing in popularity. The Cubs did it with Montgomery and Butler as they were establishing themselves, sometimes even in a piggyback role with each other. It obviously worked better with Monty. Mills has been used in that role the last two years when he's been up, working in long relief while also getting spot starts. We saw the same with Alzolay last year (and I presume this year as well).

    We are seeing it around the league as well. I want to say the Dodgers and Indians are a couple of teams who have used it to great effect. There are probably more too.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    I expect we will see it a ton this year as well given no starters are going to be fully stretched out when the season begins. I think you are going to see way more 2-3 inning relief outings. Mills, Alzolay, Underwood, Cotton could all be used in that type of role, especially with the early expanded rosters.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Alzolay may be able to pitch 2 or 3 games and give 2-3 innings in Cubs blow out loses. But, then it will be off the the IL for the rest of the year. I would not be counting on him.

  • In reply to DaveP:

    I always admired the way the Dodgers handled a 20 year old Pedro Martinez. And kudos to the Expos for having him throw about 2/3 of a season after the trade. It set him up to handle a huge workload moving forward.

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    As for starting extra innings with a runner on 2nd, at first I was firmly opposed to it, but am now willing to give it a chance. It will be a very exciting time--bunt him over, try for a single, do a Javy and see if the ball goes a foot away from the catcher--lots of permutations.
    For you hockey fans, now overtime is 3x3 and as so many purists hated the idea I love it now. It's exciting and I actually look forward to it. We can change and maybe for the best.
    Robo Umps---a big thumbs up!!

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    My first AMEN this year--to Robo Umps, of course!

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    Chicago Cubs ,MLB: " IT'S JUST A GAME " What if ? One or more of our players get's Coved - 19 and ends for them badly ? is it worth it ? " IT'S JUST A GAME " I don't want to put our players at risk just so I can see a few games that won't mean any thing .

  • In reply to Ronald Dietzler:

    I try to be as optimistic as possible. I want baseball. But as we've seen throughout these negotiations, the only thing that matters is money. That's all they're playing for. This season will be a farce, if it begins at all.

    There are so many land mines that have yet to be uncovered. I've commented several times about the media frenzy that will ensue when 100+ positive tests are revealed upon initial arrival in the next week. When, not if but when, players test positive during this "season", contact tracing is mandated and anyone coming in contact with that player is quarantined. Think about that. When (any baseball player) tests positive, all people he's been in contact with are out of commission.

    The media will play a huge role in how events unfold, and they won't be kind towards the thought of playing through sickness. That's the biggest hurdle, IMO, and they have power. This season is only about making money, and my money is it not going well, if at all.

    Here's a very in-depth article about the numerous possible pitfalls the season could encounter, and coming from Jeff Passan at ESPN, an insight on how the press will cover these setbacks, and probably even be rooting against a successful season:

    https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/29362126/inside-mlb-2020-season-plan-play-pandemic-where-go-wrong

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    It will be hard to shut the season down once started, but will it even start? Covid has changed everything. The more games played the more money the owners lose, and the most of the players are reluctant too. I will watch whatever they come up with.

  • I think it will be interesting.

    I wish the owners had stuck to their guns and implemented a 50-game season. The pennant race would begin immediately and the value of each game magnified. I know it’s all about money, so more games are better for the players, but from a poorly excitement standpoint 50 would have been great!

    They did not go far enough with extra innings. They should have done away with it completely and implemented a FIFA-like scoring system.

    It will be awful but weirdly compelling if players routinely get Covid-19.

  • In reply to Cubs09:

    Compelling is an understatement.

    Cubs players began arriving at Wrigley today. They went through a rigid protocol of questions, temperature checks, and covid tests. Safety measures in the agreement call for viral testing every other day, through a saliva sample, and antibody testing once a month, via blood sample. I'm not positive, but it would make sense to me to do an initial antibody test upon arrival. This is happening now throughout baseball, so test results will begin being publicized in the coming days, so brace yourselves for the news, and more importantly, the media's feeding frenzy.

    What will be most interesting, IMO, will be the constant fight between the powerful entities who want the season to continue vs. those who want to shut it down.

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    European soccer has been playing successfully for 2-4 weeks depending on the country. Korea and Chinese Taipei have been playing baseball for a month or so.

    Do a complete round of testing as guys come into camp, have them all follow the rules implemented by the team and the league and I believe (hope) that things will go fine. Will there be positive tests? Of course. But I do not believe that numbers and severity of the cases will be enough to shut it down.

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