We’ve reached the phase right before Spring Training where it’s mostly claims and minor league contracts while the residue of the free agent barrel lingers until teams and agents finally settle on something. For all intents and purposes, the roster is set (very similar to what we did last time, minus some DFAs and outrights and what not) and the only real questions are at the margins. For example:
- Who will be the backend starter(s), especially if Kyle Hendricks isn’t going to be ready for Opening Day, or ever?
- Who gets the last couple bullpen spots?
- Who is the pitching depth ready to be called up in case of injury/ineffectiveness/Act of God?
We will stick with the pitching theme for this post, as we determine which 13 guys likely get listed on the lineup card come Opening Day, and who their backups are on the taxi squad if a call-up is warranted.
Based purely on gut and the fact that he basically pitched like we thought he would by the end of the season, it seems pretty clear that Marcus Stroman, barring any setbacks, will be the Cubs’ Opening Day starter. I will list the five guys (not the burgers) I believe will be in the rotation on day one, and we can look at taxi squad spot starters later.
- Marcus Stroman
- Jameson Taillon
- Justin Steele
- Drew Smyly
- TBD (Hayden Wesneski or Adrian Sampson as the placeholder)
I think the top three are likely set in stone, and I also don’t think the Cubs sign Drew Smyly just to throw him in the bullpen, so that makes sense as a top four, with David Ross potentially switching guys around to alternate handedness within a series.
I say “TBD” for the number five spot because while it makes sense that it should be Hayden Wesneski (and again it’s not Hendricks simply because he is rehabbing, otherwise I think they let him start the year on the active roster as a courtesy and also because he can’t be outrighted without permission), I can see a situation where they keep Wesneski stretched out on a regular rotation in Iowa while someone like Adrian Sampson shows what he did last year wasn’t a fluke. We might also see Keegan Thompson in this spot, but I think he worked better in the bullpen as a long reliever than as a starter. So if Wesneski gets this spot, that completes the rotation, but if he doesn’t, he’s in Iowa as he has options remaining (see AZ Phil’s chart for the others as I refer to them later on in this post).
I do like that with this rotation, they generally induce plenty of groundballs and keep the ball in the park, which plays to the defense that the Cubs have assembled, particularly with the shift restrictions. Having Gold Glove-caliber defenders up the middle should help the rotation keep the runs against numbers down, and since few of these guys have blow-you-away stuff, inducing grounders and converting them into outs should help them stick around into the sixth or seventh innings more often.
We get eight spots in the bullpen assuming a five-man rotation, at least until September or in doubleheaders where they get an extra guy. No more LOOGYs because of the three-batter minimum, so these guys have to be able to sustain at least to the end of their inning. Here’s a list of the eight-ish guys, with no regard as to their actual role in the order they are presented.
- Adbert Alzolay
- Adbert has no options remaining so this is his year to prove himself before he is arbitration eligible. Adbert has thrived in a relief role where before he was kind of a meh starter, so this makes sense for him.
- Brad Boxberger
- He’s one of the free agent signings this offseason and they’re going to give him plenty of runway to show what he has left in the tank, which if he can pitch as well as he did last year, is quite a bit. Boxberger’s deal was relatively inexpensive so this is probably one of the spots that can go to an internal option if the Cubs are forced to cut bait, which is obviously not ideal so let’s not deal with that.
- Brandon Hughes
- The Cubs have a paucity of capable left-handed relief options, so this is pretty much a lock for Hughes, who did very well as Grandpa Rossy’s primary (and often only) lefty guy. Which probably means the Cubs should sign another lefty, so keep reading.
- Michael Rucker
- Depending on whether he eventually gets DFA for another signing (see below), Rucker does have options remaining so this spot is probably in flux.
- Keegan Thompson
- Thompson was one of the more reliable long relief guys after he made the full transition to the bullpen, but he might be able to function in a piggyback capacity with another bullpen guy (probably Adbert) if necessary.
- Rowan Wick
- If Wick regains a form that we saw just a couple seasons back, then he likely finishes the season in the bullpen. If not, he does have one option year remaining.
- Jeremiah Estrada or Adrian Sampson
- Estrada pitched a few times at the tail end of the season and struck out a third of the batters he faced. Sampson made a number of starts that were, shall we say, shrouded in mystery because based on his repertoire he probably shouldn’t have gotten the results he did, but the results are the results. Both have options remaining so this spot is also fluid.
- Insert free agent LHP here
- There are a few lefty relievers still waiting to find a new home, including former Cub Andrew Chafin, whom I think the Cubs should prioritize if they do want to try. The Cubs have already outrighted Anthony Kay so it would seem kind of goofy if they had to put him back on the roster, at which point they would no longer be able to outright him without permission. I think this is a free agent signing because aside from Hughes, there are no other left-handed obvious relief guys on the 40-man roster and that doesn’t include the lefty starters in Steele and Smyly.
The Taxi Squad
This represents everyone who is currently on the 40-man roster, who still have options remaining and/or the Cubs don’t care if they bail after a DFA, and who hopefully won’t suck (in this guy’s opinion anyway). Keep in mind that the maximum number of times a guy can be yo-yo’d back and forth between the minors and MLB is five, and that pitcher must stay in the minors for at least 15 days (except in case of injury replacement), so they’ll have to be creative with reliever usage and phantom IL stints. This won’t include the ones I’ve mentioned above already.
- Javier Assad
- A late-season starter, Assad had some success in his role although at times I thought he was inefficient, didn’t necessarily show off anything magical, and might have gotten away with some good luck. But he is still on the roster for a reason, as even a guy like this who can eat some innings without being shelled can be valuable.
- Ben Brown
- The return in the David Robertson trade, Ben Brown was protected from the Rule 5 draft and seems to be one of the potential call-ups should a spot start be needed.
- Codi Heuer and Ethan Roberts
- Still recovering from Tommy John surgery, Heuer figures to be a bullpen boost once he is healthy midseason. Similarly, Roberts was doing well until his own injury and hopefully regains that form when he fully recovers.
- Ryan Jensen
- Jensen was also protected from Rule 5 despite not having pitched above Double-A. I only list him because he’s on the roster and might be someone the Cubs want to look at come September.
- Kyle Hendricks
- I wouldn’t count on Hendricks doing much this year due to his recovery from a shoulder injury, but we’ll see what happens.
- Caleb Kilian
- I feel like Kilian stays in Iowa to figure out his command issues for a bit before they give him another shot, but I do expect to see him in Wrigley at some point assuming he does figure it out, because the stuff is filthy if he knows where it is supposed to go.
- Julian Merryweather and Anthony Kay
- Lumping these guys together because I think they try to outright Merryweather prior to DFAing Rucker or whoever else to accommodate whoever else they decide to sign, but Merryweather has a live arm and just needs to figure out how to make that fastball work for him and not get consistently destroyed. Kay just got outrighted so they could keep him in the organization, so I expect to see him get a shot later on in the year if he shows out.
That represents all the names on the 40-man, and we haven’t covered the guys who are lurking in Iowa. Most of the Iowa roster, as it stands, is filler and former top picks like Brendon Little, along with a bunch of reclamation projects, so there might be some diamonds down on that part of the farm without having to raid Tennessee just yet.
I would be interested to know your list of 13, but we’re still a few weeks from Spring Training, so maybe we will take a wait-and-see approach. Although this pitching staff is probably not as sexy as some others, I imagine they’ll at least be competent, so hooray for the plan!