The Chicago Cubs have built a successful juggernaut from the ground up. Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod have built an organization stock full of talent from the top to the bottom, and their depth was on display throughout the entire 2016 season. When Dexter Fowler went out with an injury they struggled, but the ability to substitute players like Albert Almora and Matt Szczur in his place separated the Cubs from the rest of the pack.
This depth was crucial to the Cubs’ ability to win so many games this past season. It will be just as crucial, if not more so, in the coming season. The struggle with being such a well-built and deep team is finding room on the active roster for all the deserving talent while also considering which players are eligible to play in the minor leagues without penalty.
As with any team, there is a group of players that are a lock to make the roster. With a team as good as the Cubs that group is very large and listing out each and every player is not a necessary task. After considering the “locks” the Cubs have five starting pitchers, two catchers, five infielders, four outfielders, and six bullpen pitchers. That leaves three roster spots.
Competing for those roster spots are Tommy La Stella, Matt Szczur, Rob Zastryzny, Justin Grimm, Brian Duensing, and Jeimer Candelario. Brian Duensing was signed by the Cubs in December. His experience and potentially dominant arm drew the the Cubs in enough to sign him. He didn’t rack up a huge amount of innings in relief, in the minors or otherwise, but there were certainly things about Duensing that attracted the Cubs to him. While it’s not a guarantee, it seems like Duensing will start the season on the roster. The remaining spots now sit at two with five deserving players looking on.
Fewer and fewer teams that use a seven man bullpen, and with both Rob Zastryzny and Justin Grimm sitting on the edge of the roster, it appears to be an easy choice to move to a group of eight in the pen.
Zastryzny had a very good debut half season with the Cubs in 2016; he pitched just 16 innings but only gave up two earned runs while striking out 17 and walking five. Justin Grimm’s 2016 season was longer and still quite impressive. He pitched 52.2 innings with a 4.01 ERA/3.52 DRA and an 18.7 K-BB percentage.
Both are quality candidates for the bullpen, but Grimm will almost certainly win out because of his experience in the bullpen. It could also be advantageous for the Cubs to start the season with Zastryzny in the minor leagues to perhaps work on stretching out and becoming a starter. Eddie Butler was recently acquired, which complicates this question further, but it doesn’t seem like he’ll find his way onto the opening day roster. He has an option year left, and the Cubs will likely look to make some adjustments to his game in the minor leagues.
Matt Szczur, Tommy La Stella, and Jeimer Candelario will all be duking it out for the final spot of the roster if the rest of this holds up. Szczur and La Stella would almost certainly be a member of the active roster of nearly every team in baseball, and on some of those teams they may even be starters. On the Cubs, they are left to fight for a final position in which they will largely be used as pinch hitters.
And we shouldn’t forget Candelario either. He tore it up in Iowa last season and is among the Cubs top prospects. If he can impress during spring training, he’ll definitely be in competition for this final roster spot.
Tommy La Stella and Matt Sczcur are in almost the same exact situation as they were a year ago. With a full infield and Javier Baez ready to play any position needed, La Stella is left on the outside. The Cubs could go with six infielders, but doing so with such a talented group of infielders to begin with may not be wise.
Matt Sczcur perhaps saw a glimmer of hope when Dexter Fowler signed elsewhere, but that was quickly quelled by the Cubs adding Jon Jay to the fold. Both Szczur and La Stella make great cases to start the season and spend a good majority of it in the big leagues. However, with no option years left, Sczcur will likely begin his season with the big league club until it becomes necessity to send him down.
The Cubs have a wealth of options surrounding their roster, and it’s a blessing in some ways. If they see any of their top players go down to injury, it won’t automatically send the team into panic mode.
In other ways it’s a curse for the Cubs to require major league capable talent to spend so much time crushing the competition in the minor leagues. The good news is that, aside from Matt Szczur, each of the guys on the borderline has eligibility to go up and down the system without penalty.
The Cubs pride themselves on their ability to have a fluid starting group throughout the season. Their roster will be no different. Options abound for a larger or smaller bullpen, and the ability to draw help in the infield or outfield. That doesn’t make the decisions at the start of the season any easier, though. In all likelihood, it will come down to performance in spring training to determine which players actually do start the season with the Cubs.
Lead photo courtesy Kamil Krzaczynski—USA Today Sports