Let’s Have a Way-Too-Early Talk About How Cubs Allocate Final Roster Spot(s)

With a requisite nod to the potential impact of random chaotic events over the next few weeks, we can project with relative certainty a bulk of the Cubs’ roster. The position players, at least. That pitching staff is a different animal entirely, a chimera that’s going to be shifting and showing us different features all season. And while there’s neither need nor great value in penciling in the bench spots just yet, a note from Bruce Levine got me thinking.

I already covered this briefly in Tuesday’s Rundown, but I wanted to switch to more of a wide angle lens here for a bit and examine what’s likely to happen with guys like Jeimer Candelario, Tommy La Stella, Matt Szczur, and even Munenori Kawasaki.

Let’s first look at the locks for the 25-man roster:

  1. Willson Contreras
  2. Miguel Montero
  3. Anthony Rizzo
  4. Ben Zobrist
  5. Javier Baez
  6. Addison Russell
  7. Kris Bryant
  8. Kyle Schwarber
  9. Albert Almora
  10. Jason Heyward
  11. Jon Jay

In case you’re not good with numbers, that’s 11 players out of a possible 12 or 13 available slots. Which means — any math majors out there? — only one or two openings for the aforementioned group. Because the pitchers will all be fresh and the early schedule features several off-days, I could see the Cubs opening with only 12 arms, which means adding two names to the list above.

That said, my initial thought is that Szczur and TLS would make the cut. That would give the Cubs a couple guys who can each play three positions in the outfield and infield, respectively, and who’ve proven themselves to be (relatively) capable bench bats. Of course, this all assumes that the team maintains the status quo and doesn’t make any additional moves prior to opening day.

Before we look at trades, I’d like to discuss some of the individuals in question here. First up is La Stella, who famously went AWOL after being assigned to AAA Iowa last season. While there were intensely personal reasons for his departure, it was still a really bad look on multiple levels. And La Stella’s comments about quitting altogether if he was traded effectively crushed his market and painted the Cubs into a corner.

He’s always been a solid lefty contact hitter who can fill in at second or third, maybe short in a real pinch, and who doesn’t really hurt you too much. Realistically, though, his arm leaves him suited for little other than second, and the Cubs already have Baez and Zobrist (who can also bat lefty) in that spot. Schwarber’s return means less time in left for Bryant, which also means less time for La Stella. Gee, it almost sounds like I’m making the case for his exclusion.

Aside from the whole being demoted and not reporting thing, Szczur is in kind of a similar situation. The addition of Jay doesn’t really really cut into the Salad Man’s playing time as much as the ascension of Baez does. Javy needs more run, which means Zobrist being flexed to the corner OF spots more often, which means Szczur seeing less of the field. But there’s always the defensive sub and pinch-running role that he could fill for Schwarber.

Candelario is the most talented of the bunch and has the most upside, which means he’s also got the slimmest possibility to actually see that potential realized on this team. Think about it like buying a Lamborghini when you live in Chicago. It’s super badass in theory, but you can’t drive it in the winter and then you end up crashing it into a light pole and abandoning it on the interstate.

That’s perhaps hyperbolic, given Candelario isn’t necessarily a supercar-type player in the long run. But he is good enough to be someone’s daily driver, which means the Cubs would do well to find a buyer in need of a new vehicle. And that means keeping Candelario at Iowa, where he can get everyday reps and showcase his talent in a manner that would be impossible in Chicago under current circumstances.

Then we’ve got Kawasaki, who would be great in the clubhouse and with the fans, but who doesn’t really do anything well enough to justify a full-time roster spot. At the same time, maybe that’s exactly why he deserves a spot. Given the Cubs’ emphasis on camaraderie and immeasurables, perhaps the quirky Japanese infielder would be the type of guy who brings more to the table than what his numbers alone suggest.

Here’s what I see happening, in order of likelihood:

  • Szczur and La Stella on roster, Candelario and Kawasaki to AAA
  • Szczur and Kawasaki on roster, Candy and TLS to AAA
  • Szczur and Candelario on roster, TLS and Kawasaki to AAA

Remember, this is all predicated on the notion that the Cubs will open with more position players than pitchers, which could very well be wrong. Either way, it stands to reason that they’ll end up carrying 13 pitchers throughout much of the regular season. If they do opt for that configuration right out of the gate, the only thing that changes in the above scenarios is that Szczur is gone.

Between Baez and Zobrist, the Cubs have more than enough versatility to cover pretty much every position save catcher. And even there, Contreras has shown that he can move out to left for stretches in a worst-case scenario. What’s more, you’ve got John Andreoli and others waiting in the wings should the Cubs need either a speed-type guy or just a stopgap injury replacement.

So where does that leave us? Good question. In a perfect world, I’d look to move both Szczur and Candelario for pitching depth and would roll with one of the two remaining infielders. In truth, I would probably option La Stella back to AAA. That could potentially be viewed as sort of a dick move meant to test his mettle, but if his resolve is still as strong as it was last season it’s better to defuse the situation immediately.

That’s what I’d do if I had my druthers, but we can’t just go assuming all the pieces will fall into place exactly as I want them to. There are still plenty of questions the Cubs will have to answer when it comes to filling out the last spot(s).

Is La Stella a poison pill that his teammates have to choke down or did the deluge of feels from the World Series wash that stuff down and under the bridge? Is Kawasaki valuable enough as a teammate to keep around? Does Szczur hold value as a fifth outfielder? Does Candelario have a future with this team or will he need to be moved elsewhere in order to realize his potential?

None of these are pressing issues and we should start getting answers soon enough, but it’s never too early to starting thinking about the possibilities. Okay, November 5 would have been too early. Probably any time in December and January too. Whatever, you get the point.

So how do you think this all breaks down: who makes the cut, who’s traded, who’s sent down?

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