It’s January, a month that lacks any modicum of decency in Illinois. It’s currently -2 degrees as I write. Our football team is eliminated, and our basketball teams are stuck in the same purgatorial existence they’ve been mired in for the past decade. Free agency is generally wrapping up, with the most exciting names already collected by new teams. The mid-winter months of the past five seasons have been about seeing what reclamation types the Cubs’ front office can procure in an attempt to harness some rejuvenated trade value at the deadline.
The dregs of January look markedly different this year, as the current iteration of the roster is robust and mostly set, save a precious few spots. Before we debate each of the candidates for the final spot on this year’s team, let’s briefly review a snapshot of last year’s 25-man roster construction on opening day to get a sense of the changes that have transpired:
2015 Opening-Day Roster
Pitchers: Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Jason Hammel, Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson, Phil Coke, Jason Motte, Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon
Catchers: Miguel Montero, David Ross, Welington Castillo
Infielders: Arismendy Alcantara, Tommy La Stella, Mike Olt, Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Jonathan Herrera
Outfielders: Chris Coghlan, Dexter Fowler, Jorge Soler, Matt Szczur
Newly-acquired Miguel Montero and David Ross complicated the catcher position, as incumbent Welington Castillo remained on the roster and possessed the talent of a starting major-league catcher. Castillo’s bat was not generally in question, but his framing and game-calling skills led to Theo Epstein’s desire to strengthen the position by bringing in the veteran pair. While the Cubs surprised pundits by initially carrying three catchers on the roster, Castillo was eventually dealt to the Mariners.
Castillo staying, at least to start the season, as the third catcher on the roster guaranteed that the bench would initially carry five players, while limiting the bullpen to seven arms to start the season. In retrospect, this wasn’t an ideal setup, as Castillo did not receive enough playing time to adequately bolster his trade value, and the bullpen could have used an additional swing man to supplement back-of-the-rotation depth issues.
Kris Bryant came up just nine games into the season, locking down third base in the process. Addison Russell joined the team sooner than most expected, initially playing second base but ultimately supplanting Castro at shortstop. Kyle Schwarber would eventually arrive and do silly things.
For a team that won 97 games, it’s remarkable how much turnover there will still be come opening day. Jackson, Coke, Motte, Castillo, Olt, Castro, Herrera and Fowler have all departed the organization through various channels. Alcantara and Szczur will both get discussion in this piece as candidates for the 25th-man, with the latter holding a greater chance of winning out.
The bullpen vacillated between seven and eight relievers for most of the year, even touching nine (!) at one point. It certainly seemed as if Maddon preferred the flexibility of an eight-man ‘pen, but that could have had as much to do with roster composition as anything. The early returns on the discussions I’ve had with other writers have this roster pegged as starting with eight relievers, and the transactions this offseason certainly lend credibility to that argument.
Keeping Joe Maddon’s roster machinations of last season in the back of your mind for context, let’s dive into an early prognostication of this year’s opening day roster construction.
Pitchers: Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Kyle Hendricks, Jason Hammel, Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill, Travis Wood, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, Hector Rondon
The Wrigleyville writing team was split on their inclusion of Cahill as a lock, but I don’t see a scenario outside of a complete implosion in Spring Training that he is left off the roster, especially considering the $4.3 million contract he recently signed. The same could be said for Richard, though the existence of Wood and Rex Brothers complicates his chances slightly more than Cahill’s, so I’ve left him just outside the locks list. (For more on the complications around the pitching lineup, see my colleague Rian Watt’s piece from last month.)
Catchers: Miguel Montero, David Ross
No surprises here, barring injury. Schwarber will serve as the third catcher, gaining the occasional spot-start.
Infielders: Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez
Surprise! Tommy La Stella misses the “locks” list, as several writers challenged my assumption of his inclusion on the roster. Because he has minor-league options, there remains a possibility of him starting the year in Iowa, but we’ll get to more on that in a moment. The rest of the infield is set, with Baez filling the super-utility role.
Outfielders: Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Chris Coghlan, Jorge Soler
Coghlan serves as the fourth outfielder; his 5.1 WARP generated over the last two seasons an indicator of the serious depth this team begins with this season. Matt Szczur represents the only additional outfielder with a legitimate chance to make the team, and even his role is in doubt as we await the final results from Baez’s winter league experiment to arrive. A late free agent addition could add another option, but the odds rest against that possibility (more on this in my colleague Rian’s piece yesterday).
In total, there are 22 players with their roster spot secured as we inch towards spring training, meaning there are three spots up for grabs for our contenders.
Tommy La Stella
Path to the Roster: As he represents the second lefty off the bench and Zobrist’s primary backup at second base, La Stella has a clear path to making the team with a healthy and productive spring training. The only real caveat is that the club still retains minor-league options with him, making it easier to send him down than other players lacking options. For La Stella not to make the team, Maddon would have to go with eight relievers, and one of Szczur, Villanueva or Alcantara would have to beat him out in the spring. I view that as an unlikely scenario, as La Stella’s ability to get on base is an important asset in critical late-game moments.
Path to the Roster: The case for Szczur is trickier than some may realize, as the Cubs don’t currently have another option to replace Heyward in center field. Carrying each of Schwarber, Soler and Coghlan on the roster means that the team has a fairly serious dearth of legitimate late-inning quality defensive options in the outfield. After Baez, Szczur is likely the next man up. It’s also a bit of a myth that he adds nothing offensively, as in a limited sample he has slugged .476 against left-handed pitching, making him a reasonable pinch-hit option against a tough southpaw. Further complicating his case is the lack of minor-league options remaining, meaning he either makes the squad, or likely finds a home elsewhere. His surest path would be Maddon choosing to carry just seven relievers, which would allow Szczur the opportunity to then grab the 25th spot. The odds here are lower—far lower—than those for La Stella.
Path to the Roster: It wasn’t so long ago that ‘Mendy was the original “cookie” given to hungry Cubs fans, and Maddon went on record postulating about the tremendous versatility he brought to the club. Alcantara’s inability to lay off breaking pitches and off-speed deliveries led to hesitancy and struggles against the fastball as well, ultimately leading to a demotion to Iowa. Now somewhat of a forgotten man among the legions of talent surrounding him, Alcantara has significant strides to make at the plate before regaining serious consideration for the big-league roster. He likely needs multiple months of solid production in Iowa before getting the call, but if a seven-man bullpen becomes a reality, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that a blistering spring earns him the final spot. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
Path to the Roster: The case for Christian isn’t dissimilar to Szczur’s candidacy, but the complication is on the defensive side of the equation. Baez and La Stella represent the backup options for third base, the only real position Villanueva offers defensive assistance. Similar to Szczur, Maddon would have to go with a seven-man ‘pen, and the front office would have to value him enough to give him the roster spot to thus avoid waivers, but this remains an unlikely scenario. Look for a possible trade of Villanueva in spring training to a team with lesser depth and weaker options at third base.
Path to the Roster: Showing up on many of my esteemed colleagues “locks” list, he falls just short for me, mainly because of the presence of Wood and Brothers as possible left-handed solutions out of the bullpen. An eight-man pen nearly guarantees his spot on the roster, but if Maddon elects to carry just seven, things could get dicey. Both Richard and Brothers have minor-league options remaining, so that won’t factor into the decision. The biggest argument against Richard and for Brothers is that Richard has some redundancy to Wood, where Brothers may be the superior late-inning specialist required to get a tough lefty out. Ultimately, I believe Richard being carried in addition to Wood better complements Hendricks and Hammel, and is the likeliest scenario to play out.
Path to the Roster: Despite signing a respectable $1.4 million free agent contract this offseason, Brothers comes in behind Richard and Wood on the depth chart. Being more of a specialist than a super-utility type (contrary to Richard), Brothers faces an uphill battle in the spring to claim his spot on the opening day squad. Barring injury—or a dramatic out-performance of Richard in the spring—Brothers will likely be relegated to Iowa and will serve as the first-man-up when the inevitable injury bug strikes the big-league bullpen.
Path to the Roster: From my perspective, Ramirez represents the toughest decision of any player on the 40-man roster. Out of minor-league options, the uber-talented Ramirez will have a handful of appearances in spring training to prove he is fully recovered from last season’s numerous injury ailments, while also demonstrating he can regain the dominant form that made him one of the games top relievers in 2014. He is one of the more intriguing stories entering the spring, and the spotlight will be shining on Ramirez as brightly as any other Cub. If forced to choose today, my gut says that he will be chosen as the eighth-member of the bullpen, thus potentially pushing out other talented players that are also out of minor-league options.
Path to the Roster: A big part of the early portion of last season’s bullpen, Rosscup’s effectiveness waned as the year progressed, as did his usage as other bullpen mates stepped in to fill the void. He now finds himself squarely on the outside looking in, stacked behind Wood, Richard and Brothers on the depth chart. With one option remaining, look for Rosscup to start in Iowa and be the second call-up option behind Brothers.
Path to the Roster: A signing based purely on upside, Acevedo finds himself on the Cubs’ 40-man roster after bolting up the Yankees minor-league system last year. Outside of a rash of injuries, Acevedo will start in Iowa and work on control issues that are currently keeping him out of the majors.
Carl Edwards Jr.
Path to the Roster: If roster spots were awarded based on nickname quality alone, Edwards would be a lock. The String-Bean Slinger made five appearances in the majors last year, while spending the majority of the season in Triple-A. While in Iowa, he posted an excellent 11.9 K/9 rate, but control remains a concern as his 6.8 BB/9 rate indicates. Look for Edwards to remain in Iowa to work on polishing his three-pitch mix in an effort to impact the big-league club later this summer.
Path to the Roster: Similar to Rosscup, Olmos finds himself buried behind several other lefties. While he’ll get a chance to earn a job during spring training, the odds are stacked heavily against him. Not having any further minor-league options, Olmos is a strong candidate to be designated for assignment before April.
Path to the Roster: Yet another intriguing depth arm, Patton strikes a ton of guys out, averaging 12.2 K/9 during his minor-league tenure. He differs from some of the other options on this list, as he still has two minor-league option seasons remaining. That alone makes him a tremendous long shot to make the opening day roster, but it doesn’t preclude him from being a meaningful contributor at some point. Look for Patton to join an incredibly talented Triple-A bullpen.
There you have it; 12 players competing for the final three spots on the big-league roster. What that represents is incredible depth, as each guy on this list could make a legitimate claim as a big-league worthy contributor. What you don’t see on this list is a plethora of prospect talent ready to break through as we did in the previous two seasons, as Villanueva and Acevedo represent the only players without major-league service time. Without further ado, here is my early projection of the Cubs opening day 25-man roster.
Pitchers: Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Kyle Hendricks, Jason Hammel, Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill, Travis Wood, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, Hector Rondon, Clayton Richard, Neil Ramirez
As I am sure you have guessed by now, I believe Maddon will opt for the flexibility of an eight-man bullpen to begin the season. Both the positional flexibility of the offense and the desire to keep Neil Ramirez on the roster will lead to this final decision.
Catchers: Miguel Montero, David Ross
Barring injury, this is your catching tandem once again for 2016. Any time missed for Montero could provide Willson Contreras a chance to debut at some juncture, but until then the veteran duo remain the everyday backstops.
Infielders: Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Tommy La Stella
La Stella wins the final bench spot over Szczur and others, and is asked in turn to play a vital role on a highly-versatile bench carrying just four hitters.
Outfielders: Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Chris Coghlan, Jorge Soler
Despite the presence of three underwhelming defensive options, Maddon elects to carry La Stella over Szczur, gambling that the trio of Schwarber, Heyward and Soler will slug prolifically enough to overcome shaky defense. Baez fills in as the fifth outfielder, regularly spelling Soler in critical late-game defensive situations.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports.
24 comments on “The 25th Man: Assessing the Race for the Roster”
But… but… but… Matt Szczur!
I’m only gonna break break, break break your heart.
I refuse to believe it.
Also, Villanueva slashed .322/.434/.480 with 9 homeruns and a 41/31 BB/K ratio in 227 at bats and he’s still got that gold-glove quality glove at 3B.
Yet he is no Matt Szczur…
Yeah, I’d actually be thrilled to see Christian get a chance, but I think he is a long shot at this point.
No one is Matt Szczur, besides Matt Szczur, of course. Sometimes I wonder if he’s even real.
I think Szczur gets nod over LaStella. He offers a good glove and THE MOST SPEED on the Cubs. With the lead late in games, Heyward to RF, Szczur to CF is best.
Now for the question no one asks: Alcantara, LaStella, Edwards, Brothers, Ramirez . . . or ROSS?
Lose Ross, save a spot for a real ballplayer. “Good in clubhouse”? Get in line–so is everyone else on this team (except, perhaps and ironically, Lester and Lackey). Also, get him a clubhouse job.
I don’t wanna hear one more word about “leadership” or pitch framing or game calling, for they are all trumped by Ross’ league-worst .518 OPS. Entering his 39th yr, my under-over is .473–exactly what it took to get Fisk unceremoniously booted from the game. But hey, he was only a HOFer.
No one is asking the question about Ross for no other reason than that it isn’t happening. I don’t necessarily disagree with your premise, but he’s hear for this year, period.
I get the frustration, but a few things come to mind:
1. If we’re talking about backup catchers, what is the marginal offensive contribution any other backup catcher will add?
2. Given that Montero generally needs 2 days rest per five starts for offensive efficiency, Ross was more of a liability on last year’s roster. But with Schwarber able to spot start, that risk is mitigated. That probably means only the Lester starts and two at bats per trip through the rotation for Ross.
3. I think we could all agree that Lester isn’t the most normal baseball player ever… can we quantify what Ross means asa security blanket to the Cubs’ biggest pitching investment?
That being said, I harbor much greater concerns about Ross during a potential playoff run.
2) I have my doubts about how often Schwarber will catch, but your point about spot-starting stands.
3) Yeah, and that fact does bother me. I was always against moving Welington because of the need for a personal catcher, but it is what it is.
4) It wouldn’t shock me if Willson Contreras is up and contributing come (hopefully) playoff time.
1) When the backup C is Schwarber, the offensive contribution is anything but marginal; more likely, it’d be the greatest offensive C in the game.
1) That’s not really true…you’re just subtracting Schwarber from left and adding him back in at C. The defensive dropoff is significant.
Wouldn’t LF then get an uptick in D? Cogs? Further, the diff between Cogs and Schwarber last yr was 58 OPS pts; between Schwarbs and Ross, 324, i.e., light yrs.
If they were to DFA Ross (which they won’t), they would have to add another catcher, so it doesn’t free up a roster space.
BTW… I’m apparently the only guy who doesn’t love Tommy La Stella. He has done nothing to make me think he is any good. He is not Mark Derosa, as much as we all wish he were.
Yeah, Ross is going nowhere, like it or not.
The La Stella love is mostly tongue-in-cheek, but I do think he can be an excellent bench-contributor, and serves as solid depth at 2B and 3B in case of injury.
For the record I am not crazy about LaStella either.
They would NOT hafta add another C, the beauty of Schwarber. So much love–rightfully so–on the versatility of Zobrist and Baez, even Bryant, but Schwarber’s versatility can be replicated by none of the foregoing. If Cubs had the guts, Schwarbs is the guy to start 32-60 G at C; if he or Montero fail/get injured, we’ve got Contreras and Taylor Davis (better numbers offensively and defensively than Contreras) as next men up. Oh, and we could always re-sign Ross if Montero, Schwarber, Contreras, and Davis fail/get injured–unless 29 other teams have clamored for his services after the hypothetical release.
I’d love to see Cubs fully grasp Schwarber’s versatility, cut Ross, and allow an extra roster spot for either Edwards, Ramirez, LaStella, or Szczur–all of whom provide far more value than Ross.
As for Jonny Boy, when do we start weaning him off the Ross nipple? Supposedly, Ross is retiring after this yr. Lester pitched better in Oak w/o Ross, and has thrown about 80% of his IP to catchers not named Ross. How ’bout we start now?
Hmmm, I am not sure Schwarber’s “flexibility” can be considered, when the two positions he plays are likely to be at well below league-average defensively.
They will find space for Neil Ramirez if he’s healthy. Given that his inclusion requires an 8 man pen, the one position player slot is going to need to cover the two primary roster weaknesses: outfield defense and platoon advantage vs. LHP. I would guess Szczur over La Stella because of La Stella’s options, with Alcantara being the preference if he can hit enough to justify it — but likely ticketed to Iowa.
I agree on Ramirez – too much talent to let go. As for Szczur, I agree that this is a viable possibility. However, I think Maddon will ultimately value La Stella’s bat over Szczur’s, and he will get the nod. If this was 2015 and the expectation of competitiveness was slightly lower, than I could see it going the other direction. However, this season is about maximizing wins at all times, and I believe La Stella will win out because of that.
My only counterpoint would be that the line-up tilts slightly left-handed right now and that is skewed further by the talent discrepancy. Bryant is obviously elite and right handed, Zobrist is excellent and switch-hits, but beyond them, there are Soler and Baez (both projecting around 100-110 wRC+ types) and then David Ross. The bench will have Coghlan as it’s best hitter, who hits left-handed. Adding La Stella deepens the advantage on the long side platoon, but limits the team’s options to take advantage of short side match ups and makes the team slightly vulnerable to left-handed relievers being able to face multiple batters consecutively. Additionally, the team has to be very bullish to have Baez as their back-up CF / defensive outfielder replacement, since it’s likely that one of Schwarber and Soler will be the target of the double switch early in games and often. I would postulate that the defensive outfielder would have more game impact than whatever La Stella brings as a pinch hitter. Especially since La Stella will be a phone call away at Iowa.
All very valid points, and involved in the consideration. I believe this is hugely dependent upon how much they believe in Baez’s ability to play the outfield. If they are confident in that, La Stella gets the nod (which as of now I am banking on). If they are not, it’s either a seven-man pen and Szczur, or eight-man and Szczur with La Stella getting bumped to Iowa.
Of course, we’re likely to have a bruise or two before then, so it could all be moot.
We will certainly have an 8-man pen at minimum. But I’d love to go further–9 guys. Dump Ross, 14 P’s, 8 posn guys, and 3 subs: Cogs, Szczur, Baez.
They won’t do it, but I’d consider getting the jump on the league by going to a 6-man rotation (adding Warren, who may be as good as our #2). Ah, the luxury: 26 starts instead of 32; 3 diff pen guys each game, if nec, on their own rotation; 54 GP for the pen guys, instead of 80 (see Neil Ramirez). Rest, rest, rest–plus plenty of excellence–and then lights out in Oct!
Intriguing. I’d love to see simulations on what effects this would have not only on the pitching staff, but also on the position players (getting way less rest), especially the catchers.
Not sure how C’s would get less rest than on a typical team, which carries only 2 (we saw the prob w/ 3 last yr, and it cost us a lot, Castillo–another deficit on Ross’ balance sheet). Speaking of last yr, remember we played into late May with 13 P’s, 8 posn guys, and only 4 subs–2 of whom were exclusively C’s? That meant only Herrera and an OF for the bench (Szczur/Dorfman/Lake).
It’s one of the reasons I’m so jacked for this season: not only did we get better O and D outta both Heyward and Zo, but Baez is your new Herrera, and .784 OPSer Cogs is your new Dorfman.
My proposal would be 54 starts for Schwarbs at C, 108 for Montero. Montero gets 54 days off–and he needs them.
Schwarbs plays another 90 G or so in LF, still having 18 G off.
That’s 72 G open in LF–plug in Cogs for 54 of ‘em (vs. RHP). The other 18 can go to Baez or Zo.
As for Zo, pencil him in for 18 G off, 144 total, say 110 at 2B and 34 split between RF, LF, 3B or 1B, as needed. The 52 G he does not play at 2B? Baez gets those.
Give Russell 18 G off–Baez gets those, too.
Similarly, give Rizzo and Bryant 12 G off each. Tho young, they were both tanked by the post season. Zo/Bry in for Rizz, Zo/Baez in for Bryant.
Injuries? Say Soler, the most injury-prone, misses 60 G, as he did last yr: Heyward to RF, Baez or Szczur to CF, or Cogs/Zo to RF.
I haven’t added all this up, and maybe some moves are duplicative, but u get the idea. There’s plenty of flexibility, depth, and talent here to make it all happen. And this says nothing of added playing time with pinch hitting/defensive subs to still keep benchers happy and sharp.
I’m a big proponent of rest, so now I’m gonna.