Hey, Bro, Can You Give Me a Spot? Cubs Leave Room for Lester

Baseball can be a confusing enough game for the layperson to understand, what with the unwritten rules, neighborhood calls, and an increasing litany of acronyms used to describe various aspects of performance. But nothing is as much a mystery to the casual fan as the 40-man roster and the mechanics of the Rule 5 draft. Well, nothing other than Harold Reynolds’ continued employment anyway.

I say this as kind of a dullard myself, so perhaps I don’t speak for you, dear reader, or for those of your ilk. But should some poor uneducated souls happen to be reading, I wanted to provide a little additive to your baseball knowledge base by learning you up on these topics, as well as what the Cubs’ recent decisions may signal for the team’s direction in free agency.

It’s probably safe to say that we’ve all heard of the 40-man roster, so I’ll not go too far into that. Basically, a team has 40 spots that it is allowed to use to protect players. Beyond that, the remainder of the players in the organization that meet eligibility standards are made available to other teams via the Rule 5 draft.

So let’s talk a bit about eligibility for a moment. The goal of this draft is to prevent teams from simply stockpiling loads of young talent at the minor league level when other teams might be willing and able to have those same players on a major league roster.

At first blush, this might worry you as a Cubs fan, since that’s exactly what your team has been doing for the last few seasons. But lest you get worried about not seeing Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber on the 40-man, I’ll go ahead and set you at ease: they’re not at risk of being selected.

In order to be chosen in the Rule 5 draft, a player must not be on their major league organization’s 40-man roster and:

– must have been 18 or younger on the June 5 preceding their signing and this is the fifth Rule 5 draft upcoming; or

– must have been 19 or older on the June 5 preceding their signing and this is fourth Rule 5 draft upcoming.

For a more comprehensive list of eligibility rules, check out Arizona Phil’s post on The Cub Reporter.

Whew, that’s good to know. Then again, those aren’t the only guys with a little cachet still hanging around in the minors; surely the Cubs thought to protect a few others, right? Actually, they only moved one player onto the 40-man in order to protect him: CJ Edwards, about whom Bryan O’Donnell wrote earlier.

As you might expect, that leaves a lot of prospects available to be plucked from the ranks of what is easily one of the top systems in baseball. In that same article I linked earlier, The Cub Reporter lists all 52 players who could be selected by other teams.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t necessarily mean the other 29 teams will pillage the Cubs’ system and leave it devoid of its much-ballyhooed depth. Since a player taken in the Rule 5 draft must stay on the selecting team’s 25-man roster for the entire season lest he be offered back to his original team, this isn’t just a free-for-all fire sale.

But I don’t want to break down the myriad possibilities for players who may never feel a lakefront breeze billowing their Cubs uniform as gulls fill the outfield around them. No, I want to look at the meaning of the open 40th spot on the Cubs roster and the ramifications it may have on the club’s immediate future.

Perhaps it’s not as simply as connecting the dots from A to B, but it’s no secret that the Cubs have been diligent in their pursuit of Jon Lester. Had they protected two players and filled the entire roster, landing the lefty would mean letting someone else go. So keeping that spot open can be seen as a preemptive move in terms of hooking a big fish.

The Lester sweepstakes is far from over, but let’s assume for a moment that the Cubs are indeed the highest bidder and he fills up the roster. What then? A full 40-man means no more moves, right? Well, not exactly. That’s because the team still has some wiggle room when it comes to signing additional free agents.

That’s because 10 members of the Cubs roster are eligible for arbitration, and it’s that group upon which we’ll focus our attention now. I’ll not delve into the details of exactly how arbitration works, but you you can learn more here. Long story short, the Cubs may well decide that they’re better off to non-tender some players, thereby taking the risk that they’ll leave for another team.

Guys like Pedro Strop ($2.4MM projected), Luis Valbuena ($3.1MM), Chris Coghlan ($1.4MM) and Welington Castillo ($2.1MM) are pretty safe bets to stick around since they’re still reasonable cost-effective even with a raise. But I think we can assume that we’ve seen the end of John Baker ($1.1MM) in Chicago.

Non-tenders would open up more spots on the 40-man, giving the Cubs more room to maneuver in the free agent market. But what if they’re able to land a lower-tier starter in addition to Jon Lester, say James Shields or Justin Masterson? Then you’re looking at a glut of pitchers in the rotation, at least one of whom would be making a boatload of money and another (Arrieta) bucking for an extension in the near future.

When you consider the ascension of Kyle Hendricks, the picking up of Tsuyoshi Wada’s $5MM option, and the protection of CJ Edwards, it becomes pretty obvious that someone else has got to go. Recently, I likened Edwin Jackson to a wart that you just can’t find a way to remove, but I don’t believe he’s the most likely candidate to be moved to make room.

The Cubs just got out from under the burden of paying Alfonso Soriano to play baseball for another team, or, more accurately, to not play baseball at all. Do they really want to do that again? E-Jax isn’t making quite as much as Sori was, but $22MM is still a lot to choke down for a guy who isn’t contributing. Then again, that might be better than paying him to make the team worse.

But if the Cubs are able to trade Jackson, it’s likely to be for another team’s equally bad contract, which provides no roster relief. So that puts us back to square one.

So let’s look at the situation: the Cubs are in the market for starting pitching, they will need to cut salary where possible in order to make room for said pitching, and they’ve got some guys who are making more money than their recent performance dictates. Well, one guy in particular falls at the nexus of those factors and it’s not Edwin Jackson.

Travis Wood could easily be the odd man out if the Cubs do end up signing both Jon Lester and another SP this offseason. Even if they don’t add that second starter, Wood’s 2014 performance and his projected $5.5MM salary for 2015 may well make him expendable to a team that’s still trying to be efficient as it grows into competitiveness.

In summary, the Cubs protected only one player (CJ Edwards) from the Rule 5 draft, which left them with one spot remaining on the 40-man roster. While it remains to be determined, that spot was ostensibly meant for Jon Lester, who would be the first domino to tumble for the Cubs this offseason.

The likely non-tenders of at least two other members of the 40-man roster will clear space for other free agents, which could include yet another starting pitcher and/or the catcher upgrade everyone seems so intent upon. But adding another pitcher means the possible departure of Travis Wood.

There are lots of moving parts here and it’s unlikely that the dust from the Cubs roster moves will settle prior to that from the bleacher reconstruction. But we’ll have a really good idea of what this team is going to look like by the first of the year. They’re using all kind of equipment in Wrigley’s outfield right now, but the front office is doing some heavy lifting right now as well and they’ll need all the help they can get to lock out this last set.

That said, it’d sure be nice if Jon Lester would come over and give them a (roster) spot.

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