2023 Cubs Spring Training storylines to watch: Position battles
Just a few days separates us from Cubs pitchers and catchers reporting to Sloan Park and the adjacent Nike Performance Center in sunny Mesa, Ariz.
This spring figures to be one of the more interesting camps in recent memory — the Cubs brought in plenty of new faces, including prized shortstop Dansby Swanson, to augment a team that went 39-31 after the All-Star break (the 9th-best record in baseball).
As Spring Training kicks off, we’ll take a two-part look at some of the more intriguing storylines heading into camp. Part 1 is below, with part 2 coming Friday:
Over the past few seasons, the Cubs front office has shown savviness in building a bullpen. The strategy of buying low on relievers has worked well. But this winter, the Cubs have been rather quiet on the free agent relief market, Brad Boxberger being the lone exception. Instead, the Cubs have made a couple waiver claims, plus some relievers signed to minor-league deals that could fit into that mold.
Still, Jed Hoyer’s long-term goal for the bullpen comes in the form of in-house options — and the sprouts of that are beginning to show.
If, assuming health, you factor in a rotation of Marcus Stroman, Jameson Taillon, Justin Steele, Drew Smyly and someone like Hayden Wesneski or Adrian Sampson, that leaves you with eight spots in the bullpen. Of those eight, a few of those spots are likely taken — Boxberger, Brandon Hughes, Keegan Thompson and Adbert Alzolay should be on the Opening Day bullpen with the latter two capable of serving in multi-inning roles or spot starters. Julian Merryweather, whom the Cubs claimed off waivers in January, is out of options and likely takes another spot. That leaves three spots for a plethora of options (including Sampson or Wesneski if they don’t crack the Opening Day rotation).
On the 40-man roster, Caleb Kilian, Jeremiah Estrada, Michael Rucker, Javier Assad, Ryan Jensen, Ben Brown and Rowan Wick are all options — however, Brown, Jensen and Kilian likely will start the season in the Triple-A rotation. Assad was effective as a starter in the majors last season and, a stellar World Baseball Classic and Spring Training aside, will likely start the year at Triple-A to continue in that role and pitch regularly.
That leaves Estrada, Rucker and Wick as other possibilities on the 40-man roster. All three have minor league options, so there’s no guarantee they start the season on the 26-man roster but each presents an interesting case. Estrada, 24, made his big-league debut last season, pitching 5.2 innings with 8 strikeouts. He has some of the best stuff in the Cubs organization and soared through the Cubs system last year, pitching at three different minor league levels before he debuted in the majors.
Rucker, 28, was a solid bullpen arm after he was recalled following the trade deadline, pitching to a 2.93 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP from August until the end of the season. Wick picked up 9 saves for the Cubs last season, so he has some familiarity in high-leverage situations, but he struggled to find consistency. He found some stability towards the end of the year, posting a 1.69 ERA across his final 12 games, but was used primarily in low-leverage spots during that time.
If any of those three struggle, the real intrigue will come in the form of non-roster invitees.
Mark Leiter Jr., Tyler Duffey, Nick Burdi, Jordan Holloway, Manuel Rodríguez, Anthony Kay, Eric Stout, Ryan Borucki and Roenis Elías all have big-league experience and could pitch themselves into roles on the big-league roster.
Leiter Jr. was one of the most effective relievers for the Cubs in 2022, with his splitter garnering a whopping 52.9% whiff rate. Hitters hit .089 off the pitch and, in 101 plate appearances that ended with that pitch, he struck out 53 batters. He was designated for assignment last month to make room for Eric Hosmer and rejoined the Cubs on a minor league deal. If he picks up where he left off, it will be hard to keep him out of the Opening Day bullpen.
Duffey was one of the better relievers in baseball from 2019 to 2021, pitching to a 2.69 ERA, a 1.063 WHIP and a 164 ERA+ in 144 games with the Twins. He struggled in 2022, posting a 4.91 ERA, 1.364 WHIP and 79 ERA+. The Cubs are hoping he can bounce back to the level he was at just a couple of years ago. If he does, that’s an 8-year veteran who can fit into the mold of a Ryan Tepera, etc.
Kay, Stout, Borucki and Elías are intriguing because they’re left-handed arms, something the Cubs are short on in the bullpen. A strong spring could put them into the bullpen mix alongside fellow southpaw Hughes.
There are several prospect/homegrown arms that are non-roster invitees and could all pitch for the Cubs at some point in 2023. Danis Correa, Ben Leeper, Rodríguez, Cam Sanders, Brendon Little and Bailey Horn present the future of what Hoyer hopes his bullpen will look like. While they may not make the Opening Day roster, for most of these pitchers, the experience of being in big-league camp and working with the major league players and staff could help them when they reach the majors.
“Really, we have to be able to develop our own relievers in-house,” Hoyer said at Cubs Convention. “I love the offseason where I don’t have to sign anybody to be candid with you. I think that means we have a ton of arms and go with what we have internally. I think it’s a place you love to have efficiency. Your internal guys are probably less expensive, and you can use that money elsewhere on the roster.”
Battle for the final bench spots
For the most part, the Cubs have the bulk of their position player group already settled. It looks something like this:
Catchers: Tucker Barnhart, Yan Gomes
Infielders: Hosmer, Nico Hoerner, Dansby Swanson, Patrick Wisdom
Outfielders: Ian Happ, Seiya Suzuki, Cody Bellinger
Utility: Trey Mancini
That’s 10 of the 13 spots filled and, except for the two catchers, doesn’t take into account backup roles on the roster. Christopher Morel, Zach McKinstry, Miles Mastrobuoni, Nick Madrigal and Nelson Velázquez are all on the 40-man roster and are in contention for those three spots. That doesn’t include some non-roster invites that could play themselves into contention players with big-league experience like infielders Sergio Alcántara, David Bote and Esteban Quiroz or outfielders Ben DeLuzio and Mike Tauchman and minor leaguers like Matt Mervis. Unless one of those non-roster invitees performs really well in spring, or some injuries occur, the final roster spots are likely to come from players on the 40-man roster.
Morel is the most appealing of the 40-man group to make the roster, given his positional versatility. The Cubs could mix-and-match against certain pitchers and be able to play Morel virtually anywhere on the field. But, after his torrid start to his big-league career, Morel struggled over the last two months of the season, hitting .182 from Aug. 1 until the end of the season. If he struggles or some of the other players in contention perform well in spring, the Cubs could opt to start Morel in the minors — he’s only played 10 games at the Triple-A level — to continue to garner every day at-bats and reps. He’s also the best option to fill the backup center fielder role.
McKinstry is another interesting case. He’s a left-handed bat — something the Cubs don’t have a ton of — and can play second base, shortstop or third base, but he never really settled in after being traded from the Dodgers, hitting just .206/.272/.361 in 171 plate appearances. McKinstry is out of options, so, barring a struggle in spring, he stands in position to break camp with the team and fill one of the bench spots.
That could leave three players on the 40-man roster competing for one spot. Mastrobuoni, Madrigal and Velázquez all have options remaining, so this group provides some roster flexibility. When healthy, Madrigal likely presents the best option of the three. When he avoided the IL in August and the early part of September, Madrigal hit .277, showcasing his bat-to-ball skills. He can be used as a backup to Hoerner at second base, can man the DH spot or, as Hoyer mentioned at Cubs Convention, is beginning to take reps at third base.
Mastrobuoni, like McKinstry, is a left-handed option and provides plenty of positional versatility for the Cubs — he’s played all three outfield spots and every infield spot besides first base at the minor league level. But he has appeared in just 8 big-league games with the Rays. He was acquired in a trade from Tampa Bay in November and is a career .286/.367/.395 hitter in the minor leagues.
Velázquez spent the bulk of 2022 in the big leagues, but never had any consistent playing time, hitting .205/.286/.373 in 77 games. Like Morel, Velázquez hasn’t played much at the high levels of the minor leagues (34 games at Triple-A, 56 games at Double-A), so the Cubs could opt to start him in the minors to continue to get seasoning and serve as depth in the minors. He also will be away from the team during spring as he is expected to be on the roster that represents Puerto Rico at the World Baseball Classic.
The Cubs have brought in plenty of new faces and the bulk of the starting lineup is set, barring injuries, but the bench spots will be pivotal for the Cubs and ironing out those final spots will be something to bear watching in Arizona.
“You write out your lineup at the beginning of the year and that’s the last time you ever do that,” Hoyer said. “You’re gonna have injuries, you’re gonna have poor performances. Having as many good players as you can is really valuable, and I think we’re getting there. We’re getting more depth. The bottom of our 40-man roster is a lot better than it has been.
“I think the next guys off it are really talented and hopefully that depth will really help us.”