The season is winding down and the Cubs have clinched not only the Division, but also the top seed in the National League. All that’s left to do now is to prepare for the playoffs, and that includes trying to decide who is the best fit on the playoff roster. Most of the spots have been locked up, but the 25th and final roster spot could very likely come down to two right-handed hitting outfielders with somewhat similar skill-sets. Those two outfielders are Matt Szczur and Albert Almora. Here is your complete breakdown of the two candidates who could very well be vying for the 25th spot.
Neither of the two are going to wow you with their numbers on the offensive side. Szczur checks in with a .269 tAV in 188 plate appearances while Almora sports a .253 tAV in 102 plate appearances. While neither have a ton of power, the slight edge in 2016 goes to Almora with a .162 ISO compared to Szczur’s .145. There are a couple of things here that I think really matter here when determining who should be on the playoff roster. All of these points should first be caveated with a small sample warning. The first thing I look at is recent performance. While neither have been great in September (16 plate appearances for each), Almora has the clear edge with a .688 OPS compared to Szczur’s .180 OPS. The second thing I look to is pinch-hitting ability. Neither has been particularly good, but the clear edge goes to Matt Szczur. Szczur has posted a .646 OPS in 48 PAs off the bench while Almora in his limited duty has registered just a .200 OPS in 10 PAs. If you go to more than just the numbers, Szczur has the advantage of simply being in that kind of role for the entire season for the Cubs. The third and final thing I look to is ability against left-handed pitching. Because of deep playoff benches, neither will likely be asked to pinch-hit against same-handed pitching, so their performance against lefties is very important. This is a near draw as Almora has a .723 OPS in 38 plate appearances while Szczur has a .701 OPS in 71 plate appearances. All in all I have to give the edge here to Szczur, not only because he’s been slightly better with the bat, but also because he’s been in the pinch-hitting role with the Cubs all season, something that is not easy to do.
Down this far on the playoff roster, teams often look for players to fill pre-determined roles rather than just selecting the better overall player. Outfield defense is typically one of those roles. The Cubs have two pretty good defensive outfielders in Matt Szczur and Albert Almora. Szczur rates somewhere from average to above average, depending on which metric you look at. FRAA has him at .1, while DRS and UZR/150 have him at 3 and 19.3, respectively. The eye test also puts him right in that average to slightly above range. Almora has always had a carrying tool through the minor leagues, and that carrying tool has been his glove. Though FRAA has him as slightly negative (-.2) early in his career, DRS and UZR/150 both love him, putting him at 5 and 33.0, respectively. The eye test jives with those gaudy numbers. Watching Almora play the outfield is an absolute treat and I’m not sure there’s a ball that Albert can’t get to. Almora is exactly what you look for in a defensive replacement and him along with Jason Heyward late in games is an absolute weapon that I would guess Joe Maddon can’t wait to wield.
The Base Paths
Along with late inning defense, a designated pinch runner is another edge that teams often try to gain in the playoffs. The Cubs added Quintin Berry last year in the NLCS to try to add something on the bases. However, neither Matt Szczur or Albert Almora are an extreme weapon there. While both are above average on the bases, neither are a huge positive there. Almora comes in at 1.1 BRR (Baserunning runs) while Matt Szczur is at 1.0. Szczur probably has the edge in pure speed, though neither are great base stealers. Overall, neither are going to be a huge asset in the postseason. While both are perfectly fine options as pinch runners to replace a slower runner, they’re likely not going to be called upon to steal a base late in a game. Because of that, I’m going to call this one a draw.
Both Almora and Szczur have some off the charts make-up. Almora has been praised since before he was drafted for his leadership qualities and his drive to win. Szczur has been a consummate teammate all year and Joe Maddon has gone out of his way on multiple occasions to talk about how great Matt Szczur is off the field. The way he prepares even when he knows he isn’t going to be in the lineup is a huge asset in the postseason as he will likely not be in the lineup throughout the entirety of the postseason. Slight edge to Szczur in the intangibles category.
So the ultimate question is who gets the final spot? For me it comes down to which player fills a specific need better. On any given night, the Cubs could potentially have two right-handed bats off the bench out of the Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras group. Because of this, the Cubs aren’t going to really need a right-handed bat off the bench. The one skill that both Almora and Szczur possess that the Cubs could really use is great defense. Because Almora is the better defender, I believe he is the choice here to make the postseason roster. His late inning defense would be a great asset for Joe Maddon and could be a difference maker late in games for the Cubs.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports.