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.