With Saturday night’s sudden DFA and the subsequent Monday trade of outfielder Matt Szczur, the Cubs bid farewell to one of the longest tenured members of the organization and a valuable piece of the 2016 World Series championship team. With multiple prior pinch hit successes and a reputation as a great teammate and all-around good guy, Szczur ingratiated himself to the Cub faithful, meaning his departure is hard for fans to swallow. But, it seems to me that this great tweet summed up the assessment of the DFA properly:
Sometimes, baseball decisions are correct and suck at the same time. https://t.co/XvaLn0OChc
— Cubs No-Hit Streak (@CubsNoHitStreak) May 6, 2017
I totally agree with @CubsNoHitStreak (a very fine Twitter account, by the way). It’s a bummer to see Szczur go, but it’s the right call because of the further roster implications it will have for the Cubs. Let’s take a look at the positives that can come out of the trade of Matt Szczur.
During Spring Training, I wrote about the bind Szczur’s contract put the Cubs in and how it could play out in regards to the competition between him and Tommy La Stella for the final roster spot. The long short of it was that Szczur was out of options, meaning he could not be sent back to Iowa, whereas La Stella was not, and could be. In the end, Brian Duensing was placed on the Disabled List, and the Cubs kicked the can down the road by keeping both Szczur and La Stella on the opening day roster. Ultimately, Duensing took La Stella’s roster spot when he was activated, and the Cubs had stayed quite healthy during the first month of the year, meaning no other DL stints were needed before Szczur’s Saturday DFA.
Szczur being out of options was nothing new. He had that status in 2016 as well and still lasted the entire season on the roster. The pros to Szczur were clear: he is a solid player with speed and emerging power, who could obviously contribute to a winning team either as a starter or a fourth or fifth outfielder. Having extra outfield depth was something particularly critical to the Cubs entering 2017 when they were not totally sure what Jason Heyward would bring to the table, how healthy Kyle Schwarber would be, and if the platoon of Albert Almora and Jon Jay would succeed. However, with the answers to those questions so far being: good, healthy, and solid, respectively, a fifth outfielder on the roster at all times wasn’t a necessity. Try as he did, Joe Maddon could barely find Szczur playing time in 2017, as he only had 23 plate appearances before Saturday’s DFA.
Simply put, the Cubs were using a roster spot for a guy who wasn’t playing.
With Szczur’s contract status mandating a spot, the Cubs had to make the uncomfortable decision to option Tommy La Stella, a guy who has had more major league success and brings a valuable left-handed bat, to the minors.
But aside from La Stella returning to the big league club, alleviating themselves from Szczur’s out-of-options status helps the Cubs by providing roster flexibility they didn’t have before. With La Stella taking Szczur’s spot as the fourth man on the bench and still having the ability to be optioned, the Cubs can send him freely to and from Iowa when the need arises. So, if Jeimer Candelario or Ian Happ keep producing? They can get a big league shot that may last a week or may implant them on the team moving forward. Perhaps an outfielder goes to the DL? The drop off from Szczur to I-Cubs John Andreoli or Mark Zagunis doesn’t appear to be too significant, meaning one of them can come up briefly and get optioned back down.
Most importantly, with the bullpen already needing extra reinforcements this weekend from Felix Pena and Rob Zastryzny (and that was before the Sunday night marathon), having the flexibility to freely expand the pen to nine relievers if necessary without permanently releasing anyone else is a critical quality the team now has.
Of course, the DFA of Szczur came at an inconvenient time, seeing as Brett Anderson left his start with an injury less than an hour after the news broke and Jason Heyward hit the DL with a knuckle injury on Monday night. Had these events happened in a different order, you’d imagine that Szczur would still be a Cub today. But even so, the Cubs would remain tied to a player with no options who was likely still not going to see many at bats.
The whole situation has reminded me of Welington Castillo’s early 2015, when the Cubs had acquired Miguel Montero and David Ross in the preceding offseason, sapping up most of the playing time Castillo could find. It felt likely another team would suffer an injury to a catcher and come calling about Castillo, but none did, making him the odd man out on the bench. He collected only 43 plate appearances beofre he was unceremoniously traded to the Mariners in late May for reliever Yoervis Medina.
The return for Szczur, a depth righty named Justin Hancock, is lighter than the return for Castillo, potentially because Castillo played a more premium position and was not DFA’d before the time of his trade. But the concept remains the same. The Cubs stuck with their guy—a player who had given a lot to the organization for a long time—as long as they could until they just could not logically rationalize keeping him around any longer.
Though Castillo was flipped quickly by the Mariners to the Diamondbacks, he wound up putting together a nice 2015 and even better 2016. So far this season, he’s slashing .314/.333/.443 with the Orioles. Heading to the Padres, a rebuilding team, we can only hope Matt Szczur will follow suit as he gets more playing time in San Diego than he would have in Chicago.
So, with that, it’s farewell to Super Szczur, a man whose bat helped get Anthony Rizzo back on track in the postseason and, as legend goes, whose underwear helped Addison Russell do the same.
We’ll always have the walk-off pop up.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports