40-Man Roster Decisions Could Offer Clues to Cubs’ Other Moves This Winter

The Cubs front office has its hands full this offseason trying to reload the starting rotation while also reinvigorating an offense that struggled to consistently produce runs the past three summers. Ongoing ramifications from COVID-19 on planning for the 2021 roster will be huge as the Cubs don’t know when or how many fans they can have in the ballpark. Beyond what they’re able to spend in free agency, the financial situation will determine how they set up the 40-man roster as well.

As happens every winter, the Cubs will have until November 20 to reset their 40-man roster before the Rule 5 Draft, which is usually held at the winter meetings in early December. There should be 10 spots in flux, a number that could increase if certain players are not tendered a contract, but the Cubs will probably only fill as many as half of those with prospects in order to leave room for outside acquisitions.

One spot is already spoken for since Brailyn Marquez was added to the roster on September 27 for the final home game. While he might not be ready for Chicago on a full-time basis, he’s not leaving the 40-man roster anytime soon.

Another pitcher who looks to be a sure thing to be added is righty Cory Abbott, who was at the alternate site this year in South Bend and was the Cubs’ 2019 Minor League pitcher of the year. He has a nice four-pitch mix that he tunnels well and is a fierce competitor on the mound. Though Theo Epstein spoke about seeking rotation help from outside the organization, Abbott could still be in the mix for a starting spot at some point next year. Whether that’s in spring training or the middle of the summer remains to be seen.

Infielder Chris Morel is probably the most underrated prospect in the system and could be rewarded with a 40-man spot. He was just 20 years old when he came on strong in South Bend in the spring and early summer of 2019 before a knee injury caused him to miss the last six weeks of the season. He was hitting over .400 after the All-Star break and was just demolishing baseballs, then was added to the alternate site roster to get more structured development.

There are 54 more players eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, but it’s highly unlikely that the Cubs would roster more than four or five of them. Catcher PJ Higgins probably has as good a chance as anyone due to his solid plate approach and ability to play three infield spots. His power appears to be emerging as well.

Reliever Michael Rucker was left unprotected last year and the Orioles wound up taking him as a Rule 5 pick. Fortunately for the Cubs, the Orioles also surprisingly returned Rucker before spring training ended, even though he was one of the best relievers in their camp. He was also part of the Cubs’ alternate training site in South Bend this year, which should give him a leg up as a possible 40-man selection

Though not typically a priority for teams, Rule 5 picks could get more emphasis as economic conditions push teams to seek cost certainty and efficiency. It’s easier for a team to store a relief pitcher in the bullpen during a normal season than it is a position player, so some of the Cubs’ young relievers could be up for selection. Righty Trevor McGill, who the Cubs took in last winter’s Rule 5, would be a clear target if left unprotected. The same is true for Dakota Mekkes, who was on the alternate roster but was also left off last year‘s 40-man list.

Starting pitcher Duncan Robinson missed most of the 2019 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, prior to which he was known as the type of pitcher who controlled the strike zone. He often draws comparisons to Kyle Hendricks because they both went to Dartmouth. Keegan Thompson, meanwhile, missed most of 2019 but did not undergo an operation. He did return to pitch in the Arizona Fall League and, along with Robinson, was part of the 60-man player pool this year.

Last year’s preview of the Cubs’ 40-man decisions listed young righty Manny Rodriguez as a longshot to be added and, sure enough, he wound up making the cut. This year, the Cubs have a couple other longshots to make the 40-man. Righties Ben Hecht and Bailey Clark, both of whom pitched for Tennessee in 2019, could sneak in as the Cubs reward their hard work.

Hecht had a transformative year in 2019 as he began hitting the weight room regularly and employing better nutrition habits to improve his energy levels, along with fully buying into the mental skills program. Clark shortened up his delivery while still maintaining his upper 90’s velocity in the middle of the season. He wound up being one of the best relief pitchers in the second half of 2019, including a 0.66 ERA for the month of July.

One might think former first-round pick Brendon Little is a possibility, but I’m not sure that’ll happen this winter. Even though Little had a solid 2019 campaign, the Cubs likely want to see him pitch at the higher levels before they protect him.

We’re still about six weeks out from any firm decisions, but the evaluation process for these spots will start taking place very soon if it hasn’t already. Who the Cubs decide to protect will be informed by their plans for free agency and vice-versa, then they’ve got to consider which of their players other teams are likely to pluck. They tend to protect more proven players than higher risk/reward prospects, though the Rodriguez choice last season is indicative of their more aggressive philosophy.

Either way, the Cubs will likely only fill four or five of their open 40-man spots with players from the system. How they end up doing that in November could tell us a little something about their plans for the winter.

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