The Cubs have been riding a win streak since we last blogged that would be impressive if these games actually mattered. They don’t get an official off day until next week, but so far it seems everyone is just taking it easy, and a few have already left camp to participate in WBC play so that will give a few extra innings and at-bats to the other guys trying to make the team or just get their work in.
The big news, of course, is Seiya Suzuki’s oblique that has kept him out for all of the Cactus League. We have to assume at this point that he probably won’t be back until late April or early May since he needs to not just be 100% unstrained but also ramp up after basically not playing baseball all spring. So I thought I’d consider who will make the roster (again, pending surprises and/or more injuries (ugh)) and how the Cubs will construct lineups to hopefully steal a few extra games until Suzuki gets back.
The Active Roster – Pitching Staff
As before, we get 26 spots and 13 pitchers max. We can start with the rotation, which has four locks:
- Marcus Stroman
- Jameson Taillon
- Justin Steele
- Drew Smyly
It’s still spring training and they’re all in the “working on stuff” phase of the ramp up so results don’t matter, but for the most part everyone’s been doing pretty well save Smyly, who has been giving up some hard contact while figuring out some mechanical issues. The Cubs have plenty of pitching depth but none I would consider to be “number three starter” or above in current talent level save maybe Hayden Wesneski, and we’ll talk about the candidates for the fifth starter spot next. These are the three most likely to be considered:
- Hayden Wesneski
- Javier Assad
- Adrian Sampson
All three of these guys have options remaining so it really depends on which one the Cubs think will give them the best chance of winning now as well as, development wise, what would help the guy succeed long term. I put them in RC rank order because it’s based purely on how they’ve looked so far, with Wesneski being nasty as we last saw him in 2022, Assad being effective for whatever magic/sorcery reason, and Sampson giving up home runs with impunity. This is basically one for the spot and the other two go to Iowa to stay stretched out, methinks. And then I guess they’ll figure out what to do whenever Kyle Hendricks is healthy and hopefully effective again, but whoever gets this spot probably gets a month or so of runway before that happens.
Here’s my thoughts on the locks for the bullpen:
- Adbert Alzolay
- Brad Boxberger
- Michael Fulmer
- Brandon Hughes
- Keegan Thompson
Alzolay and Thompson are still the best long relief/swing starter options, Hughes is the only true left-hander not in the rotation (although there are righty options who can work well against left-handed hitters), and the other two were signed for guaranteed contracts and bring their own brand of decent ability, with Fulmer being an early favorite to close games. Leaves us three spots that I think will go something like this…
- Rowan Wick – if he doesn’t suck and maintains some velocity, he’s got his arb-level deal already and it makes sense to just let him go and see what happens
- Jeremiah Estrada – strikes out everyone in sight, so this is probably a favorite to make the team
Next Tier Down
- Julian Merryweather – an offseason claim, he has no options remaining and is probably going to snag one of the final slots due to both ability and that little no-options-left thing
- Michael Rucker – was effective last year, I feel like they might let him go in place of Wick and/or Estrada because of ineffectiveness for the former and “extra seasoning” for the latter
- Anthony Kay – since Hughes is the only true lefty in the bullpen, and the Cubs haven’t snagged another one yet via free agency (which would necessitate a roster move), if he keeps it up, he might be able to snag a spot
- Mark Leiter Jr – I used to think he sucked but I guess the stats say I’m lying, because he has been effective as a reliever and also against lefties, so the Cubs don’t necessarily need another lefty, just someone who can get them out no matter which appendage they throw with
- Brendon Little – a bit more of a long shot, he was one of the earlier-round draft picks from recent years but I feel like they’d just let him keep marinating in Iowa, although he is, of course, left-handed
Everyone else is either going to be kept stretched out for development and/or later season call-ups in Iowa, or just a bit too far away in the case of a Ryan Jensen. Sometime this summer we may see the returns of Codi Heuer and Ethan Roberts in addition to the other options already on the 40-man and others who will find their way into the mix from within or without, so the depth of options really is pleasing, and I’m not even considering other non-roster guys like Manny Rodriguez yet (he probably just stays in Iowa to keep working though).
Active Roster – Position Players
We get 13 spots, so that’s the starting eight plus five bench guys. Let’s get the locks done with first:
- Tucker Barnhart
- Yan Gomes
Infield locks (2)
- Nico Hoerner (2B/SS)
- Dansby Swanson (SS)
Outfield locks (3)
- Ian Happ (LF)
- Cody Bellinger (CF)
- Trey Mancini (DH & 1B & LF/RF while Suzuki is out)
So we now have six spots to fill, and I’ll rank each guy per position…
- First base — I think Eric Hosmer (no matter what you think of him) has the inside track and will pretty much have the first month or so of the season to show what he has before the Cubs decide whether he should be kept around, especially since they’re not paying the bulk of his salary anyway and they literally have nothing to lose this year. Patrick Wisdom is the other 1B option but I think they’ll likely let him be the starting 3B.
- Third base — with the middle infield locked up by the defensive elites, again I believe Wisdom has the inside track here, along with Nick Madrigal (?!) who has not butchered his opportunities in spring training so far at the hot corner, and who would likely be the DH on days when Mancini is manning the outfield. The other roster options include:
- Zach McKinstry – he’s left-handed and has no options remaining so I think if the Cubs don’t want to lose him (I’m kind of shrug emoji but I guess you don’t get rid of a guy unless you really have to) they give him a spot either as a bench bat or a platoon defender at 3B
- Miles Mastrobuoni – left-handed hitting is sparse on this roster, so a contact-oriented bat would at least help some, plus he apparently has options remaining per AZ Phil
- Edwin Rios – they did just give him actual money to sign with the team and he’s left-handed with big power but lots of swing-and-miss, so while the contract thing makes it seem like he’s a lock for the roster, I wonder whether they’d just eat the money, but he launched a few baseballs lately so maybe that’s enough to buy him a month on the roster
- Christopher Morel – he’s got a lot of swing-and-miss too, but this is a pretty cool Ben Zobrist-lite option because he plays everywhere on the field, even if he has issues making the throw from third base and may not be the best CF, but knowing he can plug in anywhere on the field is nice. Morel barely played in Iowa before being called up to the bigs, so since he has options, he’s a candidate to start the year in the minors with the knowledge that he’s probably one of the first guys up should the need arise
- Nick Madrigal – he can apparently make the throw from 3B to 1B and since he’s hitting for contact I don’t think they’ll option him or get rid of him that quickly
- Outfield — I think this can be covered by Patrick Wisdom, who has stood at CF before but is probably better suited for the corners, Morel, and Nelson Velázquez, who is probably the best defensive center fielder among these three to back up Bellinger.
Were I a betting man, and with the Cubs unlikely to carry a third catcher, the six remaining guys for Opening Day will be:
- Eric Hosmer (1B)
- Zach McKinstry (2B, SS, 3B)
- Patrick Wisdom (1B, 3B, LF/RF)
- Nick Madrigal (3B, 2B, DH)
- Edwin Rios (3B)
- Nelson Velázquez (CF/RF)
Predictions almost guaranteed to be wrong!
With Suzuki out and Hoerner likely to be the leadoff option, let’s just do a generic lineup against most starting pitchers because I think the righty-loaded lineup against lefty starters is pretty obvious anyway.
- 2B Nico Hoerner
- SS Dansby Swanson
- LF Ian Happ
- RF Trey Mancini
- CF Cody Bellinger
- 1B Eric Hosmer or Patrick Wisdom depending on handedness
- 3B Edwin Rios or Patrick Wisdom depending on handedness, possibly Nick Madrigal
- DH Pick your favorite bench guy depending on handedness
- C Pick your preferred catcher depending on the starting pitcher
The top five until Seiya returns is probably locked in, and I don’t think even with Madrigal being his old contact hitting self you ever want him to lead off, at least to start the season, so having a contact bat in the bottom of the lineup helps break up what might be swing-and-miss plus auto-outs at the catcher position. As the theme of the offseason goes, this is the best we can hope for.
I’ll try to check in again for the off day, when I expect the next round of cuts to be made.