With less than a week to go until the Cubs open up the 2017 season in St. Louis, the vast majority of the Opening Day 25-man roster has been pretty clearly solidified with just a few final exceptions. The most notable of those is the battle for the final bench spot. With Joe Maddon’s known preference for bullpens to consist of eight relievers—leaving only four men on the bench—that fourth and final bench job appears to be coming down to a battle between Tommy La Stella and Matt Szczur. Let’s take a closer look to determine who makes more sense for the Cubs to roster as the year begins.
Tommy La Stella – A left handed, high on base ballplayer, La Stella has performed pretty nicely in limited duty since debuting in 2014 with Atlanta. Over his young career, he has hit to a cumulative slash line of .258/.336/.352, which feels on par with the player Cubs fans have acclimated themselves to: a guy who does not hit for tons of power (just four career homers) but who maintains value with solid on base outputs.
In his debut season with Atlanta, La Stella had 360 plate appearances, so far a career high, and kept an OBP 77 points higher than his batting average. Though La Stella only saw 169 regular season plate appearances in 2016, he managed a similar feat with an on-base of .357, 87 points higher than his .270 average.
In addition to his strong on-base numbers, it’s hard to look past the type of contact La Stella makes. Of 2016 Cubs who had more than 150 at bats, La Stella led the team with a 28.1 percent line drive rate. That strong number also may indicate that La Stella’s .319 BABIP still has room for growth moving forward.
As a lefty bat off the bench, the ability to work good at-bats and get on base can be absolutely invaluable. Over his career, La Stella has garnered more at-bats against right handed pitching and has done adequate work against them, with a career line of .251/.326/.342. But he also has pretty nice numbers against lefties (.298/.385/.405 with a 12.5% walk rate), albeit in far fewer plate appearances—96 to date contrasted with 508 against righties. While that small sample size does not necessarily determine that he is a split neutral hitter, it does indicate that as a pinch hitter, La Stella is no one trick pony as he can maintain quality at-bats against both lefties and righties.
That said, this appears to be what La Stella is. A good hitter and good on base guy who hits beamers but whose slugging numbers will mostly rely on doubles, rather than homers, to stay tolerable. While it would not be astonishing to see La Stella’s numbers keep improving as he continues to acclimate himself to the major leagues, it seems likely that La Stella is already near his ceiling. For what it’s worth, La Stella is hitting .267/.343/.500 with two homers so far on the spring.
Matt Szczur – Though he wasn’t on the World Series roster, Matt Szczur became a fan favorite during the Cubs’ 2016 run. A right-handed hitter who has seen limited duty in three major league seasons so far, Szczur comes in with a career slash line of .245/.297/.376 but with numbers that appear to be steadily improving. Szczur’s first extended stay in the major leagues in 2015 saw him only hit to a .222/.278/.333, totaling out to a -0.3 WARP. But, his 2016 showed more progress as he wound up with a .259/.312/.400 line and demonstrated more power. Szczur’s 2016 WARP improved to 0.6.
That right there probably shows one of the biggest differences between La Stella and Szczur. While La Stella already appears to be the player he will always be, Szczur is more of an unknown. His nice improvement in 2016 and his excellent spring numbers—.342/.405/.553 (though Szczur typically performs well in the spring and you can’t pay too close attention to spring numbers)—indicate that there may still be more upside in Szczur’s bat.
Nonetheless, that doesn’t account for some of the flaws in Szczur’s game such as the lon-basease numbers. Though his OBP improved in 2016, Szczur had good-but-not-great on base stats in the minors, indicating his current .297 career OBP does not bode particularly well.
Additionally, Szczur is prone to making weak contact. In 2016, 22.4% of Szczur’s batted balls registered as “hard contact” and 42.7% of his batted balls were ground balls. Compare that to La Stella’s aforementioned proclivity to hit line drives and his 32.2% hard contact rate.
Advantage – Tommy La Stella
Note: For the sake of this conversation we will assume the rest of the bench plays out as Miguel Montero (C), Jon Jay/Albert Almora (CF) and Javier Baez (IF). That is subject to change but seems to be quite likely at this point.
Tommy La Stella – As an extra infielder—second and third Bases, mainly—La Stella would come into the 2017 season as essentially the sixth infielder for the Cubs, playing third string to Kris Bryant and Javier Baez at third and backing up Ben Zobrist and Baez at second. But with the versatility Zobrist, Bryant and Baez display, they could all be in the lineup simultaneously on any given day, with Zobrist or Bryant moving to the outfield and Baez subbing in at second. That means if there is ever a scenario in which Joe Maddon chooses to dispatch a matchup to exploit an opposing pitcher’s splits, La Stella’s infield prowess could come in handy as he could spell any of those players.
Matt Szczur – That same versatility from Zobrist, Bryant, and Baez that could help get La Stella onto the field seems like it would work against Szczur’s potential playing time. Even in the best case scenario, Szczur would only serve as the fifth outfielder as he would be angling for playing time that could be sapped up already by Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Albert Almora, Jon Jay, Zobrist and Bryant (and maybe even Willson Contreras). Short of a combination of injury and/or ineffectiveness from a pair of those players, it is hard to see Szczur getting a ton of outfield work and with a roster this tightly packed already, keeping a player on the team as almost solely a pinch hitter seems like it would be a difficult task.
Advantage – Tommy La Stella
Switching up the format in this third category to talk about both guys simultaneously.
So far, it’s looked like smooth sailing for Tommy La Stella to procure the final spot on the Cubs’ Opening Day roster. But, there’s just one final consideration to factor in: contracts. Quite simply, if Matt Szczur is in Cubbie blue in St. Louis next Sunday, this is mostly likely the reason.
Tommy La Stella still has minor league options remaining, meaning he can be sent to and recalled from Iowa throughout the 2017 season. In contrast, Matt Szczur does not have options remaining. So, by sending La Stella to the minors to open the year, Szczur could stick around, at least until an injury popped up that would merit La Stella being recalled.
This is the same situation the Cubs wound up in last year when Szczur’s roster status was in question throughout the spring until a late injury to Javier Baez opened up the door for him to make the roster. Szczur then was able to hang on to his roster spot throughout the rest of the year.
La Stella, on the other hand, received a highly publicized demotion in August when he refused to accept his assignment to AAA and was placed on the inactive list as he returned home to New Jersey and pondered retirement. It’s dangerous to try and divine what La Stella would feel about starting the year at AAA but all signs out of Cubs’ camp indicate that he would not mind. But, as we’ve discussed already, with career numbers that look good and more positional necessity, one can understand why La Stella would be bummed out by missing the cut.
Still, with the Cubs being forced to decide between starting the year with La Stella and losing Szczur, or starting with Szczur but keeping La Stella in the organization, it’s not hard to see why they may want to hold on to Szczur and yet-to-be determined undetermined potential.
Advantage – Matt Szczur
With news reports this weekend indicating that the Cubs are chatting with other clubs about a potential trade for Szczur, this point could easily be moot within the week. But the Cubs are high on Szczur and they have always been high on him, so I struggle to think they would move him simply out of necessity and without maximizing his full value.
I find myself asking if there is a way to keep both La Stella and Szczur next weekend in St. Louis. And I think the answer is yes.
We have taken one particular decision as a given from jump: that the Cubs will keep eight relievers in the bullpen and only four bats on the bench. Yes, that construction makes sense based on what the Cubs have previously indicated and yes, it makes sense if they are planning on flipping Mike Montgomery between the starting rotation and the pen.
But, perhaps to start the season, they take a risk by leaving Montgomery as the only lefty in the pen, releasing Brian Duensing (or placing him on the DL after a sore back sidelined him earlier this spring), dropping Rule 5 pick Carson Smith, and keeping both La Stella and Szczur on the big league squad. It is not a permanent solution, but it may be one to keep both players happy and contributing until the team can either find an even suitor in a deal for Szczur or an injury opens a door for one of them to step up into a more regular role.
The Cubs’ excellent depth served to the team’s advantage in 2016 and figures to do the same in 2017, but it leads to tough dilemmas like this one. In this situation, I vote to kick the can down the road.
Lead photo courtesy Joe Camporeale—USA Today Sports