Cubs face roster decisions as Rule 5 Draft deadline approaches

Miguel Amaya (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Miguel Amaya (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

It is that time of year again. The deadline to protect eligible players from the Rule 5 Draft by adding them to a club’s 40-man roster falls this Wednesday, so let’s take a look at the decisions the Cubs will be facing this week.

Last season the Cubs added just one prospect (Justin Steele) from their system prior to the deadline. It’s possible the organization takes a similar approach this year, but with far more roster space (currently just 32 spots filled) and with a stronger group of prospects under consideration, I’d be surprised if the Cubs end up protecting just one this time around. To be clear though, they will not fill up the 40-man at this point, as they need to leave room to make waiver claims, trades and sign free agents, etc., but expect the addition of 3-5 players to the roster this week.

All of those additions may not necessarily come from within the Cubs system. Every club faces the same deadline, but some teams are under greater roster constraints, so this is a time when player movement occurs throughout the league.

For instance, the Padres boasted a robust farm system last offseason, and it meant they had a number of eligible prospects they wanted to protect, without enough space on their 40-man roster to do it. So, they made the decision to trade a reliever from their roster who had difficulty securing a MLB job the previous year in order to free up space for a younger player. The reliever they dealt was Rowan Wick, and the Cubs became the beneficiary.

Miguel Amaya

This move is a no-brainer.

Miguel Amaya is one of the top five prospects in the Cubs system and he will be added to the 40-man roster prior to Wednesday’s deadline. The catcher possesses a strong arm even if the rest of his physcial tools behind the dish are average . His lateral quickness and explosion out of his crouch are a limitation, but his pitch framing is progressing and his leadership skills receive nothing but high praise. Don’t expect gold gloves, but in no way should his defense become a liability.

He’s developing patience as well as coming into his power at the plate. His raw offensive numbers from 2019 do not jump out, but one must take into consideration Amaya was a 20-year old tasked with a lot of defensive responsibilities as a catcher, and he was hitting in a pitcher’s park. He will be moving to a more friendly offensive environment this year and will take his AFL experience with him into 2020.

Amaya could be primed for a breakout, and while he is more than a year away, his upside is high enough they cannot risk losing him.

Dakota Mekkes, Michael Rucker, Tyson Miller

The choice to protect Dakota Mekkes could hinge on how the Cubs view the batch of relievers currently on the fringe of the 25-man roster. Alec Mills and Duane Underwood, Jr. enter 2020 out of Minor League options and without a clear path to a job at the MLB level. The team also has Wick, Adbert Alzolay, James Norwood and Dillon Maples as right-handed depth with only one Minor League option year remaining.

That is a lot of competition for a limited number of jobs (maybe 2 max) on the 25-man roster, but the club also need to plan for the future. With so many of those arms about to, or already out of options, the Cubs would be wise to reshuffle the deck and make sure they protect some guys capable of providing depth beyond this season. Dakota Mekkes is at the top of the list in my opinion.

Choices will need to be made. Adding Mekkes could trigger a trade of one of the current roster players. Mekkes is hardly a sure thing, but he brings a different element beyond the typical power arsenal, and I believe it is worth protecting.

Next on my priority list for relievers would be Michael Rucker. He transitioned to the bullpen full time in 2019 and his stuff continued to tick up throughout the year. Near the end he was regularly sitting 95+ coupled with a starter’s four pitch mix.

Tyson Miller (photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Tyson Miller (photo by Stephanie Lynn)

As for Tyson Miller, the Cubs already added his Iowa teammate Colin Rea to the 40-man roster this month rather than allowing him to test free agency, which could alter the roster math. It gives the organization Alzolay, Rea, and Steele as starting pitchers already a part of the 40-man roster. But given they declined their 2020 contract option on Kendall Graveman, the organization could accommodate another starter on the roster.

The question becomes, do the Cubs actually view Miller as a starter in the future?

Like Alzolay and Steele, Miller may ultimately be better suited as a reliever. In which case, he will fall into the same roster crunch as Mekkes and Rucker, and there may not be room for all. However, if they still see starter upside in Miller then they will surely protect him.

Zack Short

Teams are always looking to secure shortstop depth.

Zack Short is a little inconsistent on the defensive side, but he possesses all of the necessary skills to play a MLB-quality shortstop. There are contact concerns at the plate, but upside as well. Injuries severely hampered his 2019 season, which makes his current progression difficult to assess from the outside. The Cubs should have a better handle on how Short is viewed throughout the league after he participated in the AFL.

Zack Short (by Stephanie Lynn)

Zack Short (by Stephanie Lynn)

Short’s offensive profile does not align with the goal of adding a more diverse and contact oriented approach heading into 2020, but teams rarely leave young, near-MLB ready shortstop talent unprotected at this time of year, because if lost, they’ll end up having to troll the waiver wire for Mike Freeman types as replacements.

In the end, it may come down to what the Cubs plans are for Addison Russell. If they are going to tender Russell another contact this winter it likely eliminates Short from roster consideration. Fingers crossed that isn’t the case though.

P.J. Higgins, Jhonny Pereda

This is another decision which could hinge on the front office’s offseason plans for current players on the 40-man roster. If they see a potential Willson Contreras or Victor Caratini trade as a strong possibility this winter, the club may choose to add P.J. Higgins on Wednesday in order to ensure enough depth at the catcher position. If the team plans to hold on to both incumbents (or seek a proven commodity as a replacement) they could risk exposing Higgins to the Rule 5 Draft.

P.J. Higgins (photo by Stephanie Lynn)

P.J. Higgins (photo by Stephanie Lynn)

While Higgins has put in a ton of work the past two years to get bigger and stronger, he is still a relatively low ceiling prospect. He’s improved his arm and built himself into a solid defender behind the dish, while developing enough gap power to be a minor threat at the plate. His athleticism also allows him to fill in admirably at either infield corner. Still, he probably tops out as a 3rd catcher and AAA shuttle player.

One reason the Cubs could risk losing Higgins, is their catcher depth at the upper levels. Amaya is set to enter 2020 as the full time starter in Tennessee and with his 40-man slot almost assured, can at least act as an emergency call up if one is needed. Jhonny Pereda was also signed to a successor contract earlier this month, and when he shared time with Higgins in AA to begin the year, it was Pereda who earned the majority of the reps. Like Higgins, Pereda is a lower ceiling prospect that figures to spend plenty of time in AAA the next couple of years, but has a strong arm and has developed one of the better approaches at the plate in the system.

Jordan Minch, Ryan Lawlor

Jordan Minch

Jordan Minch

Neither Jordan Minch or Ryan Lawlor may receive a promotion to the 40-man this week, but I mention them because I do believe there is a chance the Cubs could lose one or both in the Rule 5 Draft. Minch was up to 97 on the gun in the AFL to go along with his above average slider. After years of struggles to throw quality strikes on a consistent basis, Minch improved his control and command in 2019. It still looks borderline to me, but he has more room for error now that he is throwing 93-95 (T97). Lawlor possesses a MLB caliber curveball that helped him punch out more than 40% of the batters he faced between South Bend and Myrtle Beach.

A move that could make room for one of them is for the Cubs to non-tender Danny Hultzen next month and then re-sign him to a Minor League deal. Hultzen is out of options and given his long running health concerns and lack of a track record, it seems improbable the Cubs (or any team) would bet on him sticking in a full-time capacity in 2020. I continue to believe a Minor League deal is in everyone’s best interest.

Iowa Reserve List

Along with the Major League Rule 5 Draft, there is a Minor League portion as well. This is how the Cubs lost Justin Bour several years ago. Last year, lefty Luis Lugo was one of three players the Cubs chose, and he proved to be valuable rotation depth and even put himself back on the prospect map after being a former top 20 guy in the Cleveland system.

Each organization submits a AAA Reserve List of up to 38 players who have Rule 5 eligibility. The Cubs currently have 79 players eligible, and assuming no more than a handful are added to the MLB 40-man roster, that means the team will be able to protect a little less than half of the remaining from the AAA portion of the draft.

While I believe the Cubs could have a player snagged in the MLB portion of the draft, I don’t see any major concerns in Minor League phase. Their core of the reserve list will likely look something like this…

Pitchers: [Mekkes/Rucker/Miller/Minch/Lawlor], Jose Albertos, Javier Assad, Craig Brooks, Faustino Carrera, Baily Clark, Scott Effross, Bryan Hudson, Conor Lillis-White, Duncan Robinson, Manuel Rodriguez, Wyatt Short, Matt Swarmer, Jerry Vasto

Catchers: [Higgins/Pereda]

Infielders: [Short], Trent Giambrone, Vimael Machin, Delvin Zinn

Outfielders: Zach Davis, Donnie Dewees, Mark Zagunis

That still leaves about 10 spots open to protect additional players, with a couple left over for the Cubs to make selections from other clubs, should they wish. For a full explanation on the process and all eligible players, AZ Phil has you covered, of course.

Comments

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  • Thank you for covering the AAA Reserve List. It is little known outside of intense minor league followers. From what I remember, a team can select a player on the AAA Reserve List, but only in the Major League phase. That means, any player selected has to be on a Major League roster for the entire season.

    Most teams use the AAA Reserve List to protect Rule 5 eligible players that have not reached AA level or players coming off of an injury.

  • Michael, in your opinion, do you feel there is a definite need - for the Cubs to add more than one free agent major league reliever to the current mix. Or do you feel there would be enough talent ready relievers in the system, to cover needs as they arise during the season.
    I feel many other organizations would be willing to roll the dice on at least a few of these guys, on their major league teams.

  • In reply to cubbustible:

    They need to add at least one. I have a bit more confidence than others in the internal options, but it would still be a very risky bet.
    Adding one proven RHP is a must. Adding a LHP would probably be a good idea as well.

  • With Nico's emergence, Russell doesn't seem to add anything that Short can't. Make the switch. And I guess I haven't seen enough of Underwood but I'd hate to lose any arms with potential because he was blocking them. I'm not sure he could be reliable enough over the entire season. Plus, I expect the cubs to add a cheap veteran reliever.

  • In reply to DarBar15:

    Russell is a much better SS than Nico or Short. He adds much more than Short.
    They should add a couple relief pitchers this offseason.

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    He's also about 10x more expensive than either.

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    His salary (& pay raise in arb) doesn’t warrant his non obp, defense only spot on the roster. Especially when they’re trying to trim as much payroll for actual upgrades in other areas. They can’t carry that career .312 obp at $3.4 million & higher.

  • I'm expecting them to add Amaya, Short and Miller to the 40-man. Maybe 1 more beyond that.

  • In reply to stephenwdavis:

    I’m with you on Amaya & Miller. Guys like Short, in my opinion, are a dime a dozen. I’d rather them protect a guy like Mekkes &/or Minch. If I remember correctly, Mekkes was really close to being a depth option to call on from the minors. The 40 man crunch & trying to figure out Maples, Mills, Underwood, Norwood amongst a few others, kept him off the 40 man. He’d be good to keep around if any of those guys finally fail for good, are traded or injured. Minch was pretty good in AZFL, LH & has some decent velocity. Lawlor is another guy, but probably is only protected by MiLB reserve list, feeling a team won’t risk a spot for him on a 26man roster.

  • In reply to stephenwdavis:

    Yes, my guess is the team adds 3-4 players. Amaya for sure. Miller and Mekkes would be my next two, and then Short if they do go with 4 (and plan to non-tender Russell).

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    They did add Short. I hope you’re right that they now non tender Russell correspondingly.

  • Very excellent write up describing this whole process, and how the Cubs minor leaguers fit into this, Michael. I understand how this works much better now, and now know the relevant players who may be affected.

    I really like Mekkes. Not only does he have good stuff, but he regularly gets guys out. Success is nice to have along with potential. I hope he gets added to the 40-man, or he will probably be taken.

  • I think DeLa Cruz will be at a minimum protected in the minor league phase. He’s another bubble type guy a bottom feeder like the Marlins could take in the ML phase. But the thing with him is that he went unclaimed when the Cubs exposed him to waivers this past summer. I might be one of the very few people who thinks he could be a decent relief arm or swing man in the bigs, despite his injury history & PED issue.

  • In reply to Milk Stout:

    De la Cruz will definitely be on the Iowa reserve list. So the only way they lose him is in the MLB phase of the Rule 5 draft, and given every team passed on him when he was on waivers in September, I don't see any team picking him.

  • The cubs added zack short,Miguel Amaya,Manual Rodriguez and tyson miller to the 40 man roster.

  • Looks like at least 1 of Higgins & Pereda will be gone. Probably Higgins. I hope not both. Also Mekkes. But they could get lucky.

  • Manuel Rodriguez must have some big-time potential for them to feel the need to protect him, correct? 23 and has only made it to high-A.

  • In reply to DarBar15:

    Setup man potential. 94-97 with a good curveball. Had a really impressive 2019, but he was bad in 2018, with massive control issues. I thought maybe the spotty track record and the fact he is lower in the system would allow the Cubs to wait a year before adding him, but my guess is they know other teams view him favorably. Other teams may have been asking about him in trades during the year and they felt they needed to protect him.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Thank you. That name just came out of nowhere for me.

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