The Cubs still have a bit of house cleaning to do before they finalize their roster for Opening Day tomorrow. They entered last weekend with one open slot on the 40-man roster, but with word that three non-roster invitees (INFs Eric Sogard, Matt Duffy and LHP Rex Brothers) have made the team, two more openings needed to be made. One was accomplished by designating infielder Ildemaro Vargas for assignment. Between now and the Opening Day roster deadline, the Cubs could try to trade one of their relief pitchers who failed to make the squad for a low-level prospect. They already accomplished this once earlier in the spring when they dealt Duane Underwood, Jr. to the Pirates.
An open question remains at backup catcher as well. Austin Romine is working out with the club as he deals with a right knee issue, but he is not expected to be ready come tomorrow. That would require the Cubs to open up yet another 40-man roster spot to make way for in-house candidate P.J. Higgins. Several veteran catchers have hit the open market this week, including former Cub Jonathan Lucroy, who was released by the White Sox despite a strong spring performance at the plate. Whether the Cubs go with Higgins or reach outside the org though, room needs to be made.
One potential solution is to send one of the Cubs three injured players (Romine, relievers Rowan Wick and Jonathan Holder) to the 60-day IL. Given Wick’s importance to the club, and the fact he is back throwing bullpen sessions, it is doubtful the Cubs will want him to miss the first two months of the season. Romine and Holder are another matter. The Cubs could solve both 40-man roster issues by adding both to the 60-day IL, though it is questionable either will be out that long.
Romine’s knee has been an issue in previous seasons, so the Cubs could choose to give him the extra time to be safe. It could also allow them the opportunity to audition Higgins while he is out. The more versatile Higgins, who is capable of filling in at both corner infield positions, would then become a candidate to remain as a fifth bench player once Romine returns. Romine is owed $1.5M this season, so I do not believe the Cubs will consider releasing him.
Jonathan Holder is currently battling a pectoral injury. He is throwing long toss, but had the returned to the mound as of this weekend. The 60-day IL is a consideration, but like Wick, the Cubs may not wish to go down that road if they believe he is capable of returning in April. Holder has a Minor League option available this season, and offers the Cubs an experienced arm they figure to call upon regularly throughout the season.
Kyle Ryan, James Norwood and Kohl Stewart are the most likely DFA/trade candidates. The veteran Ryan was optioned to the Minors very early this spring, and appears to have been passed by not just Brothers, but Brad Wieck and Justin Steele as well. Even former 1st rounder Brendon Little, who has yet to pitch above High-A, looked more impressive in Mesa. Add in the expected mid-season return of former Phillies reliever Adam Morgan from elbow flexor tendon surgery performed last October, and the Cubs could feel secure enough with their left-handed relief depth to risk losing Ryan on waivers.
As for Norwood and Stewart, Norwood continues to touch triple digits with his fastball and flash a potential out pitch with his splitter, but consistency remains elusive. The Cubs are in no rush to move on from a 27-year old with a live arm and a Minor League option season still remaining, but difficult decisions are sometimes required. Of the three, Norwood likely has the most trade value. Stewart did not impress with his performance this spring, but reports are the Cubs felt he threw well in bullpen sessions and feel the former 4th overall pick still has some untapped potential.
Catchers (2): Willson Contreras, Austin Romine / P.J. Higgins
Infielders (6): Anthony Rizzo, David Bote, Kris Braynt, Javier Baez, Eric Sogard, Matt Duffy
Outfielders (4): Joc Pederson, Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Jake Marisnick
IR (1?): Romine
The big news from this past weekend was the announcement David Bote had won the 2nd base battle against Nico Hoerner. Bote has been a solid bench player throughout his time with the club (he led the team in RBI last season), but has never been given an extended look as a full-time player. Hoerner is still the future at the position, but as one of just three players on the roster signed beyond this season (Heyward and Hendricks the others), it makes sense to audition Bote as a potential starter, given the pending UFA status of Rizzo, Baez and most specifically Kris Bryant. Bote isn’t the greatest defender at 2B or 3B, but he isn’t a butcher either. Against right-handed starters with elite breaking balls, David Ross can call upon the left-handed Eric Sogard, but expect Bote to start and bat 7th or 8th nearly every day.
Cubs will open the year with a four man bench. I’m really not a fan of a short bench, but the Cubs figure to rely heavily on their starting eight. Ross intends to give Bote and Pederson a shot at a full-time role in April/May rather than deploying a platoon at either position. If either is struggling in the role come late-May/early-June, the team will adjust on the fly and likely add a fifth bench bat to compensate.
Should a minor injury occur, Nico Hoerner is the only 40-man roster player with MLB experience, so he will likely be summoned regardless of whether it is an infielder or outfielder missing time. Kris Bryant would see increased time in LF if it is an outfielder. In the event of a major injury to an infielder, Hoerner would be recalled and inserted into the starting lineup at 2B or SS, with Bote and/or Bryant shifting to cover for whoever is missing.
If one of the starting outfielders misses significant time, summoning Hoerner and shifting Bote to 3B and Bryant to LF is a possibility, but the Cubs would have to consider adding Cameron Maybin or Rafael Ortega to the 40-man roster as well. Jake Marisnick is a known commodity as a strong defensive player, but he is coming off a strong spring, and there is hope that adjustments he began making at the plate last year to make more solid contact are beginning to pay off. If there is any potential platoon situation early on this season, it figures to be with Jason Heyward and Marisnick. Against lefty starters, we could see a Happ (LF) -Marisnick (CF) – Pederson (RF) alignment quite often.
Starting Rotation (5): Kyle Hendricks, Zach Davies, Jake Arrieta, Trevor Williams, Adbert Alzolay
RHRP (7): Craig Kimbrel, Jason Adam, Brandon Workman, Dan Winkler, Ryan Tepera, Alec Mills, Dillon Maples
LHRP (2): Andrew Chafin, Rex Brothers
IR (2): Rowan Wick, Jonathan Holder
Much has discussed already about the Cubs starting rotation. We know what to expect from Hendricks. Davies has been unfairly overlooked through the offseason and throughout this spring. Like Hendricks, he will never get the respect he deserves because he can’t light up a radar gun, but he is a solid mid-rotation starter. Arrieta and Williams only possess back-of-the-rotation stuff at this point in their careers, but both are experienced and showed good command this spring. If there is one thing the Cubs pitching infrastructure and game planning has proven, is that it can get the most out of guys with their profile. I wouldn’t be shocked if one overachieves this year.
Adbert Alzolay is the wildcard. I was quite pleased to see him earn the 5th starter job with a strong close to the spring schedule. He struggled with feel for his slider and curve early on, but regained it by the end, and he looked particularly locked in his final time out. Stamina and durability are concerns , especially since we don’t know just how much he threw last year at the South Bend alternate site. I would expect to see some quick hooks and potentially even scheduled piggyback or spot starts by Alec Mills as they try to throttle Alzolay’s workload (my guess is a target of around 150 innings).
I have faith in the left hand side of the Cubs bullpen. Andrew Chafin’s stuff is average, or maybe a tick above, but he locates it so well. He may get tagged with a big inning or two, but he’ll also have his fair share of effortless 10-pitch 1-2-3 innings setting up Kimbrel. Rex Brothers seemingly found himself over the offseason. We heard about mechanical improvements he made at South Bend last year, but he never got much opportunity to prove it in Chicago. He will this year. His mid-90s fastball and wipeout slider have been very effective so far, and most importantly, Brothers walked just one batter.
The most pressing questions regarding the Cubs staff come from the right side of the pen. Craig Kimbrel didn’t look like his late-2020 form very often this spring. So much depends on him nailing down the 9th inning this year. If he can’t it could throw the entire pen off balance, especially with his best replacement (Wick) out in the early portion of the season. Adam, Tepera, and Winkler all flashed last year, but none managed a long stretch of consistently getting outs.
Just as David Bote is finally about to get his first look as a full-time starter, Dillon Maples is about to get his first full-time look as a big league reliever. A new shortened arm path helped him harness some semblance of control for the first time this spring, but it potentially sacrificed a bit of velocity as well. Maples was often mid-90s rather than his usual upper-90s, and it led to some hard hit balls when he left his heater in the middle of the plate. If velo dip is temporary, Maples could finally break through, but I also worry that as part of a 9-man pen his manager will have other arms available in any given situation and it will be difficult for Maples to get innings and earn trust. Maples would benefit from being part of 8-man pen, because his manager would be forced into using him more often.
Workman is the only new addition. He didn’t blow me away this month, but he had a heck of a 2018-2019 run in Boston before falling apart in Philly last year. If he’s rediscovered his curveball and other offspeed stuff he could really help solidify the back end of the Cubs pen. If not, he could be a big reason the pen falls apart.
Filed under: Roster decisions