Cubs Spring Training Notebook: Sim game work and more cuts
MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs made a series of cuts Sunday afternoon to trim the spring roster to 36 players.
Right-handed pitcher Manny Rodríguez was optioned to Triple-A while six non-roster invitees were also sent to Iowa: Catchers P.J. Higgins and John Hicks; pitchers Adrian Sampson, Mark Leiter Jr., Eric Yardley and Cayne Ueckert.
That leaves eight more cuts to make before the Cubs set their 28-man Opening Day roster for Thursday.
But some of those moves have already been decided as veteran southpaws Wade Miley (elbow) and Steven Brault (triceps) will not be ready for the start of the season. It is unlikely shortstop Andrelton Simmons (shoulder) will be available, either. Simmons has been getting his work in at the Cubs complex but he has only appeared in 1 Cactus League game — back on March 24 as a DH.
That leaves Nico Hoerner as the starting shortstop until Simmons returns. Jonathan Villar has experience at shortstop but will also be needed as depth and a matchup option at second base and third base.
If the Cubs feel they need to add another middle infielder to back up Hoerner at short, Ildemaro Vargas has had a strong spring (.328 AVG, .921 OPS). But Vargas is in camp on a minor league deal and the Cubs already have a full 40-man roster. Plus, Vargas is out of minor-league options so the Cubs would have to designate him for assignment and pass him through waivers if they wanted to send him down to the minors once Simmons returns.
Rafael Ortega and Michael Hermosillo are also out of options, increasing the likelihood the Cubs will roll with six outfielders on the Opening Day roster (alongside Jason Heyward, Seiya Suzuki, Ian Happ and Clint Frazier).
Alfonso Rivas could start the season in Triple-A, as well, but Frank Schwindel was sidelined last week with some back tightness so Rivas represents a backup option at first base and another left-handed bat.
The pitching staff isn’t quite as clear.
Kyle Hendricks will start Opening Day. The team has not announced the order for the rest of the rotation, though Marcus Stroman is expected to take the ball in Game 2 Friday. Justin Steele and Drew Smyly are in the rotation, as well.
Keegan Thompson and Alec Mills could provide length out of the bullpen or slot in as the team’s fifth starter during the second week of the regular season.
Here’s how the bullpen is shaping up so far:
Chavez initially signed on a minor league deal but was added to the 40-man roster Saturday. He got the start in Sunday’s Cactus League game, tossing 3 shutout innings against the Guardians.
“Getting things dialed in,” David Ross said. “He was already pretty stretched out when he got here so his length, his ability to eat innings, his presence, the veteran status — he’s just good for a lot of reasons on this team.”
Norris gives the Cubs added length out of the bullpen. Chavez was in camp on a minor-league deal but the Cubs purchased his contract Saturday. Effross has had a solid spring, picking up where he left off last year.
Veteran relievers David Robertson and Mychal Givens have only made 1 appearance apiece in a Cactus League game so it’s possible they may not quite be ready by Opening Day.
From there, the Cubs could choose between the following list for the final bullpen spot or two:
If the Cubs want another lefty, Gonsalves would be the option. Rucker and Roberts are both already on the 40-man roster.
The Cubs were high on Holder when they signed him prior to 2021, but a shoulder injury sidelined him all year and he is back with the team on a minor league deal. He has been solid this spring with a 4.50 ERA in 4 innings.
Gsellman is another arm who could provide length out of the bullpen and is also on a minor-league deal.
Because of the Cubs’ 40-man roster crunch, it would be hard to see Holder, Gsellman or Gonsalves making the Opening Day bullpen and they will likely serve as depth options for later in the season.
Sim game — pitchers
A few hours before half of the Cubs’ team went to Goodyear, Ariz., for the Cactus League tilt against the Guardians, a portion of the squad took part in a simulated intrasquad game Sunday afternoon at Sloan Park.
Stroman and Steele started on the mound and faced a group of Cubs hitters that included Nick Madrigal, Schwindel, Suzuki, Heyward and Villar with a few prospects mixed in.
Stroman threw 5 “innings” and worked up to 85 pitches. His last time out, he said he felt his mechanics and timing were still off but he was much more encouraged Sunday.
“Definitely getting there,” Stroman said. “Just a few adjustments I’m working on. It’s just repetitions. To have the 5 ups and get to 85 pitches means I’m pretty much ready to go for the season. It feels good to get to that point.”
Stroman felt so good with his mechanics, he was even altering his timing with a little leg hitch and pause at the top of his delivery.
He also made a nifty play on a comebacker, gloving the ball behind his back and then completed a jump-throw over to first base for the out.
After his final spring tune-up, he is ready to take the ball and help Hendricks shoulder the load at the top of the rotation.
“I take pride in going deep into games,” Stroman said. “I talked to Rossy — I told him I’m ready to go 100 pitches Day 1. I’m someone who prepares a lot in the offseason so I feel like I can handle that load.”
Steele threw 70 pitches over 4 “innings” and had an eventful day on the mound.
On the down side, he was drilled with a liner on his … um … back side … by Suzuki. The good news is: He was fine and stayed in to finish the sim game.
“It stung for sure,” Steele said. “Sometimes you just gotta wear it for an out, I guess.”
Suzuki immediately went up to Steele to apologize but Steele brushed it off.
“I was like, ‘no, that’s what you’re supposed to do,'” he said. “He hit it hard.”
On the flip side, Steele came away from the outing feeling really encouraged about his changeup. He called it an “8 or 9” on a scale of 1-10 Sunday.
The controlled environment allowed him to really lock that pitch in and solidify it as a weapon heading into the regular season.
The Cubs have not officially tabbed Steele as a member of the Opening Day rotation, but it’s a foregone conclusion at this point.
“It is exciting,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Just a kid living a dream out here.”
Sim game — hitters
The day at Sloan Park was also valuable for the quintet of veterans to get a bunch of at-bats and live looks at two of the Cubs’ best pitchers in a relaxed environment.
Suzuki was robbed of a couple of hits — one by Steele on the comebacker and another on a nice diving catch by minor leaguer Jonathan Sierra in right field.
Suzuki also doubled off Steele and worked a 9-pitch at-bat against Stroman that ultimately resulted in a strikeout.
Villar doubled off Stroman and singled off Steele. Schwindel and Madrigal each had an RBI single off Steele. Heyward notched an opposite-field double off Steele and drew a walk against Stroman.
“To get consistent at-bats like that is always good here at the back end of camp,” Ross said. “A day off but to be able to face live major league pitching is good for those guys, too.”