One short month ago, I wrote about the Cubs’ cramped roster situation, and laid out the various scenarios that might unfold before we get to a final Opening Day roster. The front office had already had an incredible offseason, bringing in top-level talent at three different positions via free agency, and adding an intriguing arm in Adam Warren by trade. I and many others assumed they were finished, but we couldn’t have been more wrong:
— Ryan McGuffey (@RyanMcGuffey) February 25, 2016
You can’t script a moment such as that, and it’s a part of what makes baseball so special. In a separate move, the Cubs also traded Chris Coghlan to the Oakland A’s for pitcher Aaron Brooks, and signed Shane Victorino to a split minor-majors contract in a deal which reportedly was in progress even before Fowler signed. In a matter of hours, then, the Cubs added a surefire outfield addition (Fowler) and two more legitimate competitors for a roster spot (Victorino and Brooks). They also, earlier, added yet another intriguing bullpen option in Manny Parra. So, where does that leave us in the race for the 25-man roster? The easiest way to start is by reviewing “the locks” we discussed in January:
Pitchers: Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Kyle Hendricks, Jason Hammel, Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill, Travis Wood, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, Hector Rondon
Catchers: Miguel Montero, David Ross
Infielders: Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez
Outfielders: Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward,
Chris Coghlan, Dexter Fowler, Jorge Soler
The only change here is obviously Fowler replacing Coghlan. Barring injury, everyone else’s spot on this list is secure. So once again, we’re left with three spots up for grabs. Let’s quickly review the contenders with the new additions:
Position players: Tommy La Stella, Matt Szczur, Arismendy Alcantara, Christian Villanueva, Shane Victorino
There was ample discussion about Jorge Soler being the biggest loser in the Fowler-for-Coghlan swap, but I believe that award easily belongs to Matt Szczur, instead. Szczur’s path to the roster was primarily as a defensive replacement for Heyward in center, and as a right-handed bat off the bench against lefties. The presence of Fowler means the defensive replacement is no longer necessary, and the effect of moving Soler to the bench now means the Cubs boast the best comination of right-handed hitting reserves in the league (ever?) in Baez and Soler. In short, Szczur’s services may no longer be needed. Furthering the pain for Szczur, the club no longer retains minor-league options for him, which means his time in Chicago may be running very short.
On the other end of the spectrum, Tommy La Stella stands to gain the most from this transaction. There existed a well-founded argument that the final bench spot should belong to Szczur for the reasons stated above, and also because La Stella retains minor-league options, but the loss of Coghlan means that La Stella will now be the primary left-handed option off the bench on many days. This all but ensures his spot on the roster, and is enough for me to move him onto the list of locks.
Victorino is an interesting addition, but we have to keep in mind this likely would not have happened had the Fowler news broken one day earlier. With that in mind, I believe Victorino will end up in Triple-A, as his contract is of the minor-league variety. I like what that means for the development of Albert Almora, and I also believe Victorino will see time in the majors at some point—and possibly have moments of meaningful contribution—much more so than I believe in Matt Murton’s chances of getting the call.
As for Alcantara and Villanueva, I don’t see much impact in these moves, as the dynamics of the infield haven’t changed. Losing Coghlan’s left-handed bat may present a slight crack for Alcantara’s switch-hitting abilities, but his path to the majors is more about figuring out off-speed deliveries than it is anything else.
Pitchers: Clayton Richard, Rex Brothers, Neil Ramirez,
Zac Rosscup (60-day DL), Andury Acevedo, Carl Edwards Jr., Edgar Olmos, Spencer Patton, Manny Parra, Aaron Brooks, Armando Rivero, Aaron Crow
The closer we get to opening day, the more I believe Joe Maddon will carry eight relievers, and the more I believe that one of those spots is Neil Ramirez’s to lose. As we touched on in episode three of BPWrigleyCast, if he can finish spring training strong and exhibit elite stuff as he did in 2014, he’ll be on the roster.
The addition of Parra doesn’t really change Ramirez’s situation, but what it does do is threaten—if only slightly—Clayton Richard’s spot on the roster. Even in an eight-man ‘pen, only two of Wood, Richard, Brothers and now Parra can make the squad. Wood is a lock, leaving Richard and Parra battling for the last spot. Parra is a true LOOGY, averaging less than an inning per appearance last year with the Reds, while Richard is more of a long-reliever, averaging nearly two innings per appearance last year in his role with the Cubs. However, Richard has been the much better pitcher against lefties (.605 OPS against compared to .721 against for Parra) over the course of their careers. This means that Richard is likely the better option as both a long-reliever, and also as a specialized reliever in late-inning situations. With that in mind, Parra will likely head to Triple-A as an excellent depth piece for the big-league team. I view Rex Brothers as a bit more of a reclamation project—one with interesting upside—that will also likely join Parra in Iowa as usable depth.
Aaron Brooks has not fared well in his major-league appearances, and he’ll be headed to Iowa to fine-tune his offerings. He has two minor-league options left, so he has plenty of time left to improve before a decision is made on his future. That brings us to the moment you’ve all been waiting for, updated predictions:
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
The addition of Parra is more about depth than actually changing the dynamic of the bullpen, so as long as Ramirez has regained his stuff, I’m sticking with my original prediction.
Catchers: Miguel Montero, David Ross
Infielders: Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Tommy La Stella
La Stella becomes a lock with the addition of Fowler, and his and Baez’s versatility gives management the confidence to only carry four position players on the bench. Once again, my original prediction stands, although now with more confidence behind it.
Outfielders: Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler, Jorge Soler
The addition of Fowler dramatically improves the outfield defense, and creates a nightmare scenario for right-handed starting pitchers. Soler will see plenty of time as well, starting against virtually all lefties, while occasionally giving each of Heyward, Schwarber and Fowler a day of rest against righties as well.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.