Cubs’ Roster Flexibility, MiLB Depth Make 40-Man Roster Decisions Exercise in Upside

In remaking the 40-man roster for 2022 and what they promise will be a competitive team very soon, the Cubs are going to have a lot of decisions to weigh. There are over 40 potential minor league free agents, 60 prospects who are eligible for the Rule 5 draft, and several players on the major-league roster who aren’t locked into long-term deals. Then you’ve got the choices on whether to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players.

When you take into account the newfound depth in the system following the draft and trades, the Cubs can afford to let some players go via free agency or Rule 5. That’s because they’ll need a little more room to protect others they believe could have a higher upside, even if they’re not yet ready for Chicago or even the higher levels of the minors.

The Cubs initially had over 50 minor leaguers who were set to be free agents at the end of the season, but that number has changed significantly in the past month as several of them have already been called up to Chicago and placed on the 40-man. Still, there are a few who are almost certain locks to be added shortly after the World Series ends.

The most likely MiLB free agent added is Scott Effross, a reliever who was promoted during the season to Triple-A Iowa. He’s been almost unhittable coming from his sidearm delivery since the middle of July and is capable of working multiple innings. Dakota Chalmers seems like the only other lock, so the Cubs should add him because someone would be bound to pick him up based upon the way he pitched for the Smokies (2.30 ERA in August as a starter).

Outside of those two, I’m sure the Cubs would like to extend a few players whose contracts are coming to an end. What a novel concept. Considering Donnie Dewees spent most of 2021 rehabbing a torn ACL, the Cubs might try and bring him back to give him one more chance. The same could be true for Tyler Payne, Carlos Sepulveda, and Jerrick Suiter, but not all will be brought back as part of them 40-man roster. 

Because they have so many players eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, there’s no way they can protect all of them. In that regard, the Cubs’ best hope to keep some solid prospects is that they’ve been injured all season. For example, pitcher Riley Thompson hasn’t pitched above Low-A due to an injury this year and probably won’t be picked up by another club if he’s left exposed.

There should be about 10 spots available on the 40-man, not all of which will be used to protect current members of the system. Even if ’22 remains a rebuilding year, the Cubs are going to have to acquire MLB-level players to fill the active roster. That means being judicious when it comes to how those spots are allocated.

There are two ways to look at this year‘s Rule 5 group: The “No-brainer” selections and the “Can you afford to leave them off?” category. The no-brainers are already in Triple-A and include Ethan Roberts, Jared Young, Brendon Little (who looks totally different with a slider in his pocket), and Alfonso Rivas.

Outfielder Nelson Velasquez has made himself a no-brainer pick at Tennessee since his promotion, but it starts to get a little tricky after that. The Cubs might put lefty reliever Brandon Hughes on the 40-man considering he’s throwing in the mid-90s and has developed a slider that has turned vicious. That’s a pretty big deal considering he’s only been pitching for one and a half seasons and has fewer than 75 career innings since being converted from the outfield.

The one player I am most on the fence about at Double-A is Cam Sanders. He’s an undeniable talent who has some of the best stuff in the system, but he’s also still learning how to harness it. He was near dominant at Low-A South Bend in the second half of 2019 (2.36 ERA, BAA of .161) and has had his moments this year as he gets a feel for his slider. I could see a team taking a chance on him because he does have a very live arm.

Reliever Danis Correa, who just started pitching at South Bend after dominating Myrtle Beach with a 1.73 ERA, can throw in the upper 90s and is definitely someone you could stash in the bullpen at the major league level. Gabriel Jaramillo of Myrtle Beach (1.56 ERA) is very similar to Correa and other teams might covet him, but this was his first season stateside after missing two years due to injury. Out of these two, Correa is the more likely to be added.

Righty Jeremiah Estrada would definitely have been on the list had the Cubs been required to make it a month ago, but he is now on the IL with an undisclosed injury.

As for the other 50 or so Rule 5-eligible players, the Cubs will probably just roll the dice. As painful as it was for some to see so many big players traded away, improving the talent and depth of the system makes decisions like these a lot easier.

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