The fight for the last bench spot

This is a battle I know all too well. In fact, given my extensive personal history of watching a lot of high school games from some of the closest seats in the house with a uniform on, I feel I am perhaps extra qualified to delve into this topic, and it might explain my interest in a bench position that will likely change several times during the season, but if you’ll indulge me, let’s take a look at just who might pick up a bat for the Cubs in the last spot on the 25 man roster.

Some of this will depend, of course, on how many relievers the Cubs choose to carry in their bullpen when April arrives. They have certainly stocked up in that department of late, so there are plenty of arms to choose from when arranging their reliever staff, but given the significant changes to the offense since last season, the bench picture is a bit less clear. I’ll assume that Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and David Ross are the givens, but knowing that the Cubs will carry at least one more bat on the bench (if not two), it leaves a few viable options for the other spots.

Tommy La Stella

Until last season, La Stella had only played second base, but he showed some of the defensive flexibility that has become so valued on this team when he spent some time at third base in 2015. Though it was a season that was heavily abbreviated by injury, he showed flashes of the kind of productivity that you hope for from a backup infielder with a just below average wRC+ of 99 and even a just above replacement level fWAR last year. The key for La Stella might be the fact that he bats left because the offense otherwise tilts toward right handed hitters, and a lefty bat will be needed for pinch hitting duties especially.

Shane Victorino

I love his enthusiasm about joining the Cubs organization, but the outfield is already pretty crowded. Victorino’s value may come from the fact that he has started switch hitting again and that he can play all outfield positions. I’ll admit to some doubt about his ability to keep up the switch hitting given that he abandoned it a few years ago due to back injury, but I’m willing to entertain the idea that he might be able to keep it up. His rather extensive postseason experience is intriguing as well, but Victorino strikes me as minor league depth who will serve the added bonus of mentoring some of the young players he’ll be riding the bus with across the Pacific Coast League.

Munenori Kawasaki

There really isn’t much to get fired up about when you examine what Kawasaki has done at the plate in his MLB career, but he can handle any spot in the infield other than first base, and he also bats left, so he presents the same option as La Stella would, but with perhaps greater defensive flexibility. That said, the real case for Kawasaki being on the 25 man roster is probably this:

 


Matt Murton

Though his triumphant return to MLB has been since a bit overshadowed (Dexter Fowler probably owes him a beer or something), Murton last played for the Cubs in 2008 before being lumped into the Rich Harden trade that sent him to Oakland and out of our lives, but he has had a rather successful career playing for the Hanshin Tigers for the last six seasons. Even in Japan, he’s handled both corner outfield spots like he did here, and gets on base readily and shows flashes of power. Realistically though, Murton seems to stand little chance at being anything other than inury insurance.

Arismendy Alcantara

I still am not totally sure how to pronounce his last name, but as recently as 2013 he was ranked in the top ten in the Cubs farm system. Since then, of course, things have changed pretty significantly. He found bits of success during his time in the majors in 2014, but last year he struggled somewhat even during his time in the minors. He spent the bulk of his season in Iowa last year, where he had a wRC+ of 78 compared to 126 in AAA in 2014. That difference gives me some reason for hope that he’ll bounce back in 2016, but not without some skepticism. Alcantara’s strongest case for making the roster could come from his switch hitting and his defensive flexibility. He’s had experience at second, third, and center along with some time at shortstop in the minors and in the winter leagues.

Matt Szczur

Poor Matt. His right handedness and the very deep outfield depth chart will likely keep him in Des Moines for much, if not all, of the upcoming season. He’s already had some injury trouble this spring, which is not at all what he needs if he’s going to force his way onto the 25 man roster. Szczur could be the beneficiary of an unfortunate injury to another outfielder above him in the depth chart and the fact that he can play anywhere in the outfield could help, but I don’t see it happening for Szczur.

Given the depth of pitching that the Cubs have and the increased defensive flexibility of their offense, it would not surprise me to see them break camp in April with an extra arm and rely heavily on Swiss Army Knife Baez to provide depth all across the field, so only one of the aforementioned guys will join him on the bench, and though he perplexed me a bit last year, I think Alcantara might just surprise us and be the guy in the 25th spot on the roster.

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  • Would have bet heavily on Szczur being the 25th guy back before the Cubs brought back Fowler,.... but with Fowler and Victoriano on the ST roster, and with it looking like Baez is going to be the back-up for just about anywhere,....

    My odds are on La Stella - if he can be depended on to do some time as an adequate LF guy, or Alcantara if he can demonstrate he can make more regular contact.

    Nice article by the way Jared.

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    In reply to drkazmd65:

    I agree. I think it's La Stella. He's pretty valuable in his role. Need a pinch hitter in a key situation? Sen up Tommy.

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    In reply to drkazmd65:

    The player who benefited the most from the Fowler sign (and trade of Coghlan) was Tommy LaStella. He went from a "maybe" to in my mind being the 25th guy.

    I think everyone else is playing for a spot in the event of injury

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    I Agree THAT LA Stella Will Be THE 25th man, Unless They Decide To Take Away 1 From THAT Thought From THE Bullpen. .. the victorino would be in the picture, ultimately u love victorino ss outfield depth. . So if we could keep him in aaa, to keep that depth and give the kids his knowledge then that is the nest option. . But if not, part of me believes that we are better off making victorino our 25th man, and letting la stella go because we already have backup 2nd baseman in baez.. either way, not a bad problem. To have...

  • Isn't Ceasar out of options? If he is to see Iowa, he will have to go through waivers.

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    In reply to DaveP:

    Yes. He's probably a goner if they try to send him to Iowa. Without an injury, that is.

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    In my mind, La Stella is a lock. Left handed pinch hitter to compliment the two righties off the bench (Baez & Soler). The real question is whether they go with 7 or 8 relievers. If 7, then your list (minus La Stella) becomes relevant. But to me, the real guy on the bubble is Neil Ramirez; he would be the 8th reliever. He's pitched in one game in Spring Training, and I read he topped out at 92 MPH. In 2014, when he dominated, he would hit 95 MPH consistently. If he shows signs that he can approach that again, and is healthy, he is too good to leave off the roster, especially since he is out of options.

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    In reply to Cubs Win 009:

    Ramirez does not have to worry about a roster spot. If he is healthy and poppin' 94-95 mph he will be on the 25 man, and if he still needs to build up arm strength then he'll likely stay for ext. spring training and be placed on the 15 and ultimately 60 day DL.

    This will help alleviate a roster crunch for someone like Sczur

    When he came back from injury last before being shutdown he only hit 91-92 mph. They tried saying he was healthy, but clearly if he was sitting 91-92 mph he was not.

    According to Arizona Phill Ramirez, Sczur, and Christian Villanueva are out of options.

    I just don't think this FO is going to have any qualms over losing Sczur and/or Villanueva, but maybe we see a minor trade.

  • In reply to johnsmithcubfan:

    Christian Villanueva broke his right fibula in practice last Sunday 2/28 and will be out 2-3+mos. Until then (tongue in cheek) he was out of options, too.

  • In reply to Cubs Win 009:

    I'm with you on La Stella unless he plays himself out of that lock. He makes too much sense. He's an excellent pinch hitter, a lefty off the bench and can play 2nd and 3rd which takes some of the burden off Baez who backs up those 2 positions as well as 1B, SS & CF. Alcantara could challenge him with an outstanding spring but doesn't have the LH bat which makes that hurdle higher IMHO.

    I'm not sure on Ramirez to be honest. I originally thought this would be a tough roster for him to make, you kind of have to figure that they'll want 3 lefties in the pen, but if he's lights out you probably have to keep him as he's out of options. Assuming 13 pitchers you'd figure the competition is Ramirez, Richard and Brothers. You would figure that they would love for Brothers to pitch well and make himself a lock but Richard could be insurance if Brothers is iffy but still makes the team. To me that last roster spot is on the pitching staff.

  • In reply to TC154:

    Alcantara can bat from the left side. He is a switch hitter.

  • In reply to John57:

    The problem is I don't think Alcantara can hit, from either side, on the MLB level. I would love to be wrong.

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    In reply to Cubs Win 009:

    I agree; LaStella will be the guy. Everyone else is playing in case injury opens a roster spot

  • In reply to Cubs Win 009:

    I still think that the Cubs are setting up for a semi-regular rotation to keep everybody fresh. If true, the concept of "pinch-hitter" is merely those players who didn't start the game on that particular day, not a "regular" PH. To me, RH and LH don't really enter into the equation.

  • In reply to wthomson:

    There's some truth in that but sometimes, in the thick of the pennant race, it does come down to handedness on your bench in order face a particularly tough pitcher. If the choice is La Stella, Victorino, Alcantara or Murton I go with La Stella, and let Alcantara and Murton play in AAA. I'd be ok with Victorino in AAA as well but he's said it's MLB or bust.

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    In reply to TC154:

    I wouldn't want to be in Victorino's position. No one signed him to an MLB contract the entire off-season. His best hope is to have a team have a CF go down to an injury, or want to get a veteran for their bench, and the Cubs trade him for negligible value.

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    LaStella and Mendy are fighting for the last slot. LTS gets a nod for his OBP but Mendy is more versatile and is faster. This is why ST is important, because at some time during the season everyone is used and makes a difference.

  • One out of the box (and unlikely) scenario is that Soler starts the year in AAA. It would be easy for the Cubs to justify his being sent down to work on his OF defense. The only reason why I even think this is possible is if he spends a minimum of 45 days (not games) in AAA, the Cubs will gain an extra year of control.

    Again, not likely, but something to keep an eye on.

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    In reply to Quedub:

    Isn't Soler already on a big league contract so it don't matter if he is in MLB or MiLB. Or he signed a contract that was only for 9yr or something so this is a mute pt. Wasn't that part of the rush to get him to the majors instead of wasting his time in the minors since he was already on the clock.

    And seeing how we are unanimous picks to contend this year I don't know how this FO justifies sending Soler to the minors. I think the "team" may view that as a "crappy" thing to do. Their commitment to winning and all.

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    In reply to johnsmithcubfan:

    Google: Jorge Soler sighned with the cubs

    He signed a 9yr deal period. The Cubs control over Soler is already set.

  • In reply to johnsmithcubfan:

    Wrong. Not that he will be heading to the minors. His free agency clock can be extended to past his signed contract as MLB service time still has to reach 6 years to become a free agent. Also, once he would have been arbitration eligible, he can opt to have arbitration determine his salary which is very likely to make him a lot more money than staying with his set contract.

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    In reply to Theo Epstein:

    Only if he has a major break out or becomes a star does he opt into the arb. clause in his contract.

    And I still don't see the team doing that with Soler as I think it just sends the wrong message to a team that is a contender. Last yr. and Bryant was one thing but the Cubs weren't a unanimous pick to be contenders.

  • In reply to johnsmithcubfan:

    These are not super star level arb numbers.

    2016 - $3M
    2017 - $3M
    2018 - $4M
    2019 - $4M
    2020 - $4M

    If he is an everyday starter, he will blow these numbers away. He may do it if he is just a platoon player.

    Also he is not arb eligible until 2018 right now.

  • In reply to johnsmithcubfan:

    I also said they wouldn't send him to Iowa, you said his control was already set.

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    In reply to Theo Epstein:

    Not sure this is true. Cespedes certainly didn't have to wait seven years to become a free agent. I thought the major league deal he signed meant he was out at the end of the contract. It doesn't really matter because he's out of options so he can't go back to the minors, which means the contract will expire just as he reaches 6 years of major league expierence.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    I could be wrong but Cespedes was 26 when he was signed. I think the rules are different at that age.

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    In reply to TC154:

    Was that true when he signed, though? I know age matters now but Soler was one of the last international free agents signed before the new rules took effect. (Puig snuck in right under the wire.) I'm really not at all an expert on this.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    It is true and Soler is not out of options. He has a 4th option available.

    "Most players get only three minor league options, but a player who has accrued less than five "full seasons" is eligible for a 4th minor league option."

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    In reply to Theo Epstein:

    12, 13, 14, 15

    Four option years, yes?

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Per AZPhil at thecubreporter.com

    "Soler has used three minor league options, but he is eligible for a 4th minor league option that can be used in either 2016 or 2017 (but not both seasons), and if he spends at least 45 days on optional assignment to the minors in either 2016 or 2017, he would remain under club control through the 2021 season instead of through 2020, although he would still be eligible for salary arbitration post-2017 (as a "Super Two"). Therefore, the Cubs could buy an extra year of club control over Jorge Soler (without changing his eligibility for salary arbitration and the right to opt-out of his contract post-2017) if he is optioned to the minors for at least 45 days in either 2016 or 2017."

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Options only happen when he is on the 40 man roster and get sent down. He gets 4 options years and there is one left.

  • In reply to johnsmithcubfan:

    Soler has an opt-out after 2017 or 2018.

  • In reply to mutant beast:

    Not true. He can choose to have arbitration determine his pay once he becomes arbitration eligible.

  • In reply to johnsmithcubfan:

    Per AZ Phil at thecubreporter.com

    "Soler has used three minor league options, but he is eligible for a 4th minor league option that can be used in either 2016 or 2017 (but not both seasons), and if he spends at least 45 days on optional assignment to the minors in either 2016 or 2017, he would remain under club control through the 2021 season instead of through 2020, although he would still be eligible for salary arbitration post-2017 (as a "Super Two"). Therefore, the Cubs could buy an extra year of club control over Jorge Soler (without changing his eligibility for salary arbitration and the right to opt-out of his contract post-2017) if he is optioned to the minors for at least 45 days in either 2016 or 2017. "

  • Usually these conversations involve talking about who is out of options and who can still be sent to the minors.

    LaStella is likely the 4th bench player, but that is not the 25th man.

    Kawasaki is minor league depth for sure.

    Victorino will not be riding the bus for Iowa, he has an opt out at the end of Spring Training.

    Szczur is out of options and will be hard to pass through waivers.

    Murton is minor league depth for sure.

    Al-Can-TRA is heading to Iowa. No way to justify him on the 25 man roster out of Spring Training.

    The real battle for the 25th spot is between Neil Ramirez, Andury Acevedo, Rex Brothers (not likely after how he looked yesterday, but it is still early) as 8th RP options or an out of options player in Szczur. Most likely this decision will come down to any injuries and which guy they will lose.

  • In reply to Theo Epstein:

    The only way to justify Alcantra is if Joe wants some kind of pinch running ability with one person off the bench. If he does, then he is probably the guy.

  • In reply to KJRyno:

    Matt Szczur would be the guy if that was the goal.

    Alcantara needs to play everyday to see if he can become an the player we have seen in short spurts.

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    In reply to KJRyno:

    It is possible for Alcantara to earn the 25th spot. He also provides more power, I think, than La Stella AND can play more positions defensively as well as being a switch-hitter. In short, he is even more versatile.

    I do think La Stella has the advantage of being better at making contact/drawing BB/not striking out. We have LOTS of guys able to hit HR. Someone that can simply put the bat on the ball can be valuable and is something that Alcantara hasn't shown himself particularly able to do yet.

  • I would go with Alcantara because a world series level team should be able to keep a pinch runner on the 25 man roster.
    Also in terms of LH hitters off the bench keep in mind that there will be a healthy number of games where Schwarber or Fowler or Montero will be "bench strength." Not sure I'd need TLS for that purpose.

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    In reply to Prulix:

    You can't carry a pinch runner on the 25-man during the season. Pinch running types are for the playoffs, when you don't need as much bullpen.

    Alcantara would be valuable for his versatility and athleticism, if he could figure out the breaking ball. This year in Iowa is critical for him. Last year, he was beaten out for a callup by Mike Baxter, which tells you all you need to know about how Mendy's year was going....

  • I really hope Ramirez makes the cut. Out of the bench openings, it really feels like this will be LaStella's spot to lose. Alcantara is still only 24 and would benefit from more time in the minors. LaStella is 27, and just appears to be more major league ready. As far as pinch runners go, Baez will give you that one days when he is not playing. If he starts at center, that means that you will have Fowler on the bench who can pinch run. I do think that Alcantara comes up if there are any injuries, but right now he needs to play everyday.

  • Digressing slightly: I was shocked to see Beaz sliding head first into second that first game. You would think after his hand injury he would have stopped that.

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    In reply to Oneear:

    Doesn't he wear a "brace" on his hand now? Either way, I agree, I don't like guys going in head first.

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    In reply to Oneear:

    Or sending Russell from 1st to home yesterday after his hammy injury last postseason. Yeah, he's probably 100%, but it's the first week of ST.

  • Double switches, plays all positions, pinch hitter, pinch runner, defensive replacement, and often starter, Baez is going to lead the team in games played. Pinch hitter LaStella looks like 25th man.

  • I really don't want to lose szczur. I'm thinking he or Ramirez will be "injured" to start the season so they don't lose either of those guys. The other will make the team.

  • After his poor first showing in center people are still 100% convinced that Javy is going to be the primary backup (behind Heyward) in center? I'm just not convinced. I know people say he looks good out there but I'm not so sure that Joe will trust him during the regular season until he proves he won't make embarrassing errors. Feel free to flog me when I'm wrong though!

  • In reply to Torcosign:

    He is probably still trying to figure how to control his emotions. He gets to amped. Once he relaxes his defense will be there.

  • In reply to Torcosign:

    Byrant can cover CF too. I think we have more than enough depth there now. Fowler,Heyward, Beaz, Bryant.

  • In reply to Torcosign:

    I think he will get first crack at it, and if he fails they can always use Heyward as the backup to Fowler. And during the regular season is when you need to try it out. The sun and high sky in Arizona is tough, but there is little wind and inclement weather. Give Javy some time in Arizona and then try him out in CF a couple of times in April/May in the wind and cold and see how it goes. Is there a chance he costs the team a game? Sure. But if they think he can fill the role eventually they need to give experience out there.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Good point about the sun. And he can't be worse than that guy on the Pirates falling and costing them a game last year... Was that Alvarez? My main point was that Joe might want to give him practice reps so that he doesn't make a bad error and hurt his confidence going forward. But I hope they try him out early and often. I think given the reps he could be at least as good as Dex out there.

  • In reply to Torcosign:

    Palanco I think.

  • In reply to Torcosign:

    Keep in mind that this poor showing in center was just one game, and the first spring training game at that.

  • In reply to Torcosign:

    It was an adventure to be sure but John and others who saw him play there that day indicated that he actually looked better than he performed. In other words they were saying he needs reps. I'm guessing he'll get them in the spring and we'll all see whether he makes progress or not. Here's the thing though, Heyward is the backup in CF. If there's an injury to Fowler, he's going to be the guy taking over there with Soler playing RF and there will be OF options to call up from AAA, maybe Matt Murton who would be more than a suitable replacement OF and you'd still have Baez or Bryant who could play CF. Carrying someone like Szczur just seems to be a luxury they can't afford right now.

  • In reply to TC154:

    I feel the same way about Heyward being #2 on the depth chart but I do want Javy to get outfield reps. We gotta get that bat in the lineup.

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    In reply to Torcosign:

    I am comfortable with Baez being the "primary back up" to the "back up" (Heyward). In short, is he capable of being the 3rd string CF? I am comfortable with that.

  • Here is hoping. Javy is one of my faves and I hope he can go far in the game.

  • In reply to Torcosign:

    Baez is blessed with gifted baseball talent. He is blessed a second time with Joe to mentor those gifts. Javy is a good kid, but it's still a peocess. He was irratic at third initially as well.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Rome wasn't built in a day.

    We can also play Fowler/Heyward, Fowler/Soler or Heyward/Soler, so I don't see much of a problem.

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    Peralta torn ligament, out 2 - 3 months.

  • In reply to Cubs Win 009:

    He'll hit the PEDs again, I'm sure he'll return quickly.

    Sorry - had to go there.

  • Victorino is the only OF-only option that would even be considered in my opinion, and I don't think we should read too much into his presence since theo never intended for he and fowler to be on the same team. The cubs have 4 legit MLB caliber OF and Bryant and Zobrist can play there too, so an extra OF is redundant for me. victorino is only an option in the short term if Theo thinks he still wants to move Soler. I don't understand the Baez in CF experiment at this point either after the Fowler signing. Baez has not played that much at 3b and 2b as a pro, so I would continue to have him focus on being a 3 position IF option, with heyward being the backup CF. At this point Baez has not proven that he is a capable rotation player in centerfielder with the bat or the glove, so they need to leverage heywards abilities.

    Lastella is the most obvious choice for me for the last spot, but one question to consider is player development still. Does it make sense for the cubs to have soler, Baez, and LaStella all playing bench rolls. Ita not too far fetched to see a scenario where any of them could be 500 at bat players in a semi-starting roll in the future. I'm just wondering if you should continuously cylce 1 of those 3 guys through Iowa to continue to get consistent At bats and not stunt their growth

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