23 for ’23: Who are some under-the-radar players that could make the Cubs Opening Day roster?
Between position battles, roster additions and new rules, there are plenty of questions surrounding the 2023 Cubs. We attempt to provide answers for 23 of the most intriguing questions heading into the season.
MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs began spring camp with 74 players, including a full 40-man roster and a whopping 34 non-roster invitees.
The group has since been whittled down to 66 after this week’s cuts, but there are still plenty of players who could factor into the Opening Day roster equation.
Here are a handful of under-the-radar candidates to watch as the spring moves along.
(Note: We focused on players who are not yet on the 40-man roster, so the Cubs need to
OF Mike Tauchman
With the injury to Seiya Suzuki, the Cubs are in search of a placeholder in right field for what figures to be at least a couple weeks in April. The Cubs have a couple of veteran in-house options already on the big-league roster (Trey Mancini, Patrick Wisdom) and others on the 40-man roster (Christopher Morel, Nelson Velázquez, Miles Mastrobuoni).
However, Tauchman could force his way into the mix after signing a minor-league deal with the Cubs over the offseason.
Tauchman, 32, is a Chicagoland native (Palatine, Ill.) who has spent his offseasons working out at Justin Stone’s facility since 2016. That relationship with the Cubs Director of Hitting creates some organizational familiarity and Tauchman also has some solid big-league experience.
He has 257 MLB games under his belt and put himself on the map with a strong 2019 campaign as a role player with the Yankees (13 homers, 47 RBI, .865 OPS in 87 games). The pandemic impacted his career and he spent 2022 in Korea but Tauchman has impressed the Cubs so far this spring.
He walked, stole a base (his 3rd of spring) and scored a run in Thursday’s Cubs win and is hitting .400/.526/.533 overall in Cactus League play. He also made a nice sliding catch in right field Thursday.
“The things that stood out early were a calm approach, better outfielder than I expected,” David Ross said. “Thinks through his at-bats, thinks through his swing, feels like he controls the zone really well and making solid contact.”
Tauchman is a left-handed bat who can play all three outfield spots and could serve as a solid role player for the Cubs even when Suzuki returns. But will the Cubs opt to add him to the mix when the 40-man roster already boasts other outfield options?
OF Ben DeLuzio
DeLuzio has a few things working in his favor: His speed, defense and right-handed bat.
With the new rules leading to an increase in stolen bases, speed is making a comeback around MLB. The Cubs have some guys who could swipe a bag but none better than DeLuzio, who has 140 career stolen bases in the minors (including 30 last year in 94 games with the Cardinals’ Triple-A squad).
DeLuzio also is a true center fielder and as a righty, could serve as a perfect backup and complement to the left-handed-hitting Cody Bellinger in Chicago.
However, he is currently away from the Cubs playing for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic and only received 5 plate appearances in Cactus League play before departing. Ross and Co. won’t get a chance to see him play live for at least the next week or so and that could hurt his chances to make the Opening Day roster after signing a minor-league deal with the team in December.
Like Tauchman, the Cubs have to evaluate whether to add another outfielder to an already packed 40-man roster and if so, would that be DeLuzio? Morel and Velázquez both hit right-handed and can play center and with Bellinger expected to see the vast majority of at-bats at the position, the Cubs don’t need much depth at the position unless an injury pops up.
RHP Tyler Duffey
Duffey is certainly flying under the radar. The Cubs added veteran relievers Brad Boxberger and Michael Fulmer on big-league deals this offseason and also claimed Julian Merryweather off waivers.
But they also signed a handful of minor-league free agents with solid MLB track records and Duffey is at the forefront of those options.
The 32-year-old right-hander has 73 career holds and 6 saves across 8 years and 295 games with the Twins. He was a big part of the back end of the bullpen in Minnesota from 2019-21, posting a 2.69 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 174 strikeouts in 144 innings — racking up 2.9 WAR in the process.
Duffey struggled a bit last season and was ultimately released by the Twins and bounced around to the Rangers and Yankees Triple-A teams before becoming a free agent over the winter.
This spring, Duffey is tied for the team lead with 4 appearances and has allowed only 1 run with 6 strikeouts compared to 1 walk.
With potentially several spots in the Cubs bullpen up for grabs, the veteran Duffey could find his way getting big outs for Ross’s squad come Opening Day.
RHP Mark Leiter Jr.
When Leiter Jr. switched to a reliever role full-time last season, the Cubs seemingly discovered a new bullpen weapon. In relief, the righty pitched to a 2.87 ERA and showed his value in that role.
But their 40-man roster crunch this offseason meant he fell on the cutting board — he was designated for assignment in January when the team signed Eric Hosmer.
Still, both sides saw a clear path to production and Leiter Jr. signed a minor-league pact with an invite to big-league camp and has so far made the most of it, pitching 3 shutout innings this spring.
He provides an interesting bullpen option for the Cubs. His splitter was incredibly effective last year, as opponents hit just .090 off the pitch and he had a 52.5% whiff rate on the pitch.
Leiter Jr. also has reverse splits — lefties hit just .176 off him last season, while righties hit .248 against him. With Brandon Hughes as the only current lefty option out of the pen, Leiter Jr.’s ability to have success against hitters from both sides of the plate could be valuable for Ross in the ‘pen.
LHP Roenis Elías
Speaking of left-handed bullpen options, the Cubs might not have a better option than Elías. The Cuban was stellar in the Dominican Winter League this offseason, going 4-0 with a 0.92 ERA and 0.769 WHIP in 7 starts and 39 innings for the Aguilas Cibaeñas.
The Cubs signed him early in the winter — in December — and he’s impressed so far in camp.
“I think he’s a guy that can do a lot of different things,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said early in camp. “He’s got the weapons to be a more dominant lefty type reliever but he’s also got the pitch package you like to be able to take you 1-2 times through the order if we do want to stretch him out as a starter.”
Elías is away at the WBC with Cuba, pitching in a special tournament for his home country. He pitched 5 shutout innings in his debut in the tournament, allowing just 2 hits.
For the Cubs, Elías could serve a multitude of roles. The veteran could be used as a lefty specialist and allow the Cubs to not overuse Hughes. Additionally, the Cubs could have him in the mold of Keegan Thompson or Adbert Alzolay — a multi-inning relief “weapon” that can help save the bullpen from being overtaxed.
RHP Nick Burdi
Over the last few years, the Cubs have found success in the free agent relief market, particularly with pitchers that could be bounceback candidates. They’re hoping they did just that in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft with Burdi.
The Hinsdale native has appeared in 16 games in his big league career, but the underlying numbers in that time and in his pitches make him a player to watch the rest of spring. He had 17 strikeouts in 8.2 innings of work with the Pirates in 2019 and in the minors he had 156 strikeouts in 115 innings of work.
He underwent Tommy John surgery, missed the 2021 season and didn’t pitch in 2022, so the Cubs took a flier on him in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft. So far in Spring Training, he’s struck out 5 in 2.2 innings across 3 appearances.
Burdi’s high-strikeout profile could be appealing in the Cubs bullpen — having a power arm that can punch out a batter has a ton of value. But, Burdi will have to work on his control — he has 5 walks this spring while facing 13 batters. Still, if he can figure out his command, he could prove to be a valuable, under-the-radar weapon for the Cubs relief corps.
23 for ’23 series
What will the Cubs’ new era at catcher look like?
What is the Cubs’ plan at third base?
Who steps up in the wake of the Seiya Suzuki injury?
What role will Christopher Morel have on the 2023 Cubs?
Who will win the Cubs’ 5th starter spot?
Where does Nick Madrigal fit on the roster?
Who will close for the Cubs?
What kind of impact will Dansby Swanson have in his first season in Chicago?
What is the plan for Matt Mervis?