How the Cubs 2020 Opening Day roster is shaping up
MESA, Ariz. – 2020 Cactus League action is upon us and before we know it, the best holiday of the year — Opening Day — will be here.
Unlike years past where the Cubs roster has largely been settled entering camp, this spring should feature a bunch of competition – namely on the pitching staff. At the moment, the starting second baseman and fifth starter has not been named while at least half of the bullpen is up for grabs.
A lot can change over the next few weeks as injuries or other transactions come to light, but here’s one way it could all shake out in David Ross’ first year as manager.
Remember, rosters are ever-changing. Last year, the Cubs broke camp without Kyle Ryan in the Opening Day bullpen and he wound up leading the team in appearances while other call-ups proved valuable for stretches of the season (Ian Happ, Rowan Wick, Nico Hoerner, Alec Mills). Theo Epstein’s front office also added pieces throughout 2019 (namely Craig Kimbrel and Nicholas Castellanos), though it remains to be seen how this season will play out and whether the Cubs will have the flexibility to become buyers this summer.
This is as easy as it gets to project. Short of an injury, Contreras and Caratini will break camp as the Cubs’ top two catchers.
Contreras has started two straight All-Star Games as the National League catcher and Caratini enjoyed a breakout campaign as a part-time player in 2019 (.348 OBP, .794 OPS).
With the 26th spot on the roster opening up, the Cubs could opt to add a third catcher to the mix – an option Ross has already thrown out there as a possibility since it would open up Caratini or Contreras as a pinch-hitting option off the bench. If the Cubs roll with three backstops, the third guy would be Josh Phegley, the only other catcher in the system with big-league experience.
Infield remains the strength of this team with three stars holding down the fort. Bryant survived a winter of trade rumors and barring a surprising move during spring training, will break camp with the team once again. Báez confirmed he is fully recovered after a thumb injury cost him the final month of the 2019 season and he proved he could handle playing shortstop full-time with an elite defensive season. Rizzo is still the anchor of the team both on the infield and in the lineup (where he’s projected to hit second behind Bryant).
The only additions to this group are Kipnis and Hernán Pérez. Kipnis, a Chicago-area native, is a two-time All-Star and — when healthy — has been the everyday second baseman for the Cleveland Indians for most of the last decade. He signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs just before camp started, so there isn’t much risk for the organization. He’s an accomplished veteran who can potentially serve in a leadership role within the clubhouse and his high-contact left-handed bat could be a welcome addition to the team on the field.
“It’s exciting to get veteran big leaguers who have been in big situations and put up good numbers,” Ross said. “I look at him as a guy that comes in, competing for a second-base job, a spot that we have a lot of good players at. He’s got a great resume and been in big situations, a middle-of-the-order bat type of guy, good numbers against righties and lefties, grinds at-bats. I love the way he plays. I’m a fan from playing against him and seeing him from the other side. You take all those things into consideration when you see a guy like that walk into your office.”
Pérez will turn 29 on Opening Day and was a longtime thorn in the Cubs’ side when he was on the Brewers. Given his versatility (he can play outfield and infield, including shortstop), right-handed bat and speed, he provides a different complexion for this roster and could be a perfect guy to fill the 26th man role on the roster. However, both Pérez and Kipnis are in camp on minor-league deals, so the Cubs would need to clear a 40-man roster spot to add either player to the Opening Day roster. That might mean the most likely course of action would be stashing Pérez in the minors as depth to open the season and calling him up if there’s an injury or other roster move.
At the moment, it seems the most likely outcome for top prospect Nico Hoerner is to begin the season with Triple-A Iowa. He impressed in his three-week stint with the big-league club down the stretch, but he was thrust into duty because of an emergency and has only played 70 games above A-ball. With so many names in the second-base mix, the minors might be the only path for everyday playing time for Hoerner to begin the year and that’s necessary for his development. At some point soon, he figures to be the Cubs’ everyday second baseman, but that might not happen until May or June at the earliest.
If Hoerner does, in fact, begin the season in Iowa, Ross might go with a rotation of Kipnis, Bote and Descalso at second base — depending on the matchup — with the other two guys on the bench as pinch-hitting options. In this scenario, Bote would be the emergency shortstop and if Báez went down with an injury, Hoerner or Pérez would get the call from Triple-A.
Albert Almora Jr.
Steven Souza Jr.
Souza replaces Castellanos (who signed with the Reds), otherwise this is the same group the Cubs finished last year with. Souza missed all of 2019 with a knee injury, but he’s fully healthy now. His exact fit on the roster is unknown, but he’s capable of playing all three outfield positions and could represent the right-handed half of a platoon if the Cubs wanted to give Heyward or Schwarber a day off against a tough left-handed pitcher.
Expect Happ and Almora to work in a timeshare in center field, though there’s an opportunity for either player to take the job and run with it. Heyward can still play center if need be, but the Cubs would prefer to keep him in right field, where he is one of the best defenders in the game at the position.
Schwarber was one of the NL’s top hitters in the second half last year and finished with career highs nearly across the board (38 homers, 92 RBI, 82 runs scored, .871 OPS). Now he’ll be tasked with figuring out a way to carry that production over a full season.
Here’s where things really start getting interesting on the roster. The first four are locks for the rotation, but the fifth spot is up for grabs. Chatwood appears to have the inside track, which makes sense given his track record and potential. However, as spring wears on, he could be pushed by the likes of Alec Mills, Colin Rea, Adbert Alzolay or Jharel Cotton.
Mills, 28, is out of minor-league options, so he can’t be sent down to the minor leagues without first going through waivers. Rea turned heads with a solid debut season in the organization last year, posting good numbers in a hitter-friendly environment in Triple-A. The Cubs will have a role for Alzolay on the big-league pitching staff at some point this season, but it might not be on Opening Day and it might not be in the rotation. Cotton was acquired in a minor deal with the A’s over the winter, but he hasn’t thrown a big-league pitch since 2017 due to injury.
The Cubs like Mills and what he brings to the table as either a starter or a multi-inning reliever. So rather than risk losing him on waivers, expect him to be on the Opening Day roster in some capacity if he’s healthy. The other guys could provide depth options in Triple-A Iowa to open the season. Theo Epstein’s front office typically likes having nine or 10 options for the rotation in case of injury or ineffectiveness.
Craig Kimbrel (closer)
Duane Underwood Jr.
Other options include: Alzolay, Cotton, Rea, Brandon Morrow, Dan Winkler, Ryan Tepera, Trevor Megill, James Norwood, Dillon Maples, Justin Steele, C.D. Pelham, Tyler Olson, Jason Adam, Danny Hultzen, Dakota Mekkes, Rex Brothers, Wyatt Short, Ben Taylor and Brock Stewart.
Essentially only Kimbrel is locked into a job in the bullpen after signing a 3-year, $43 million deal with the Cubs last June. His performance will be the ultimate key for this unit after a rocky first half-season in Chicago (6.53 ERA, 1.597 WHIP, nine HR allowed in 20.2 innings).
“Terrible is kind of an understatement for what I felt like I did last year,” Kimbrel said. “Going into this year, I’m just gonna get back to doing my job, getting on the mound and saving games. Time will tell. A lot of questions will be answered, but I have no doubt in my mind I’m gonna get on the field and I’m gonna do my job this year and put last year behind us.”
After Kimbrel, it’s fair to assume one of the other bullpen spots will go to Jeffress, who is one of only two players the Cubs signed to guaranteed big-league deals this winter. The 32-year-old right-hander dealt with a shoulder injury that sapped his performance in 2019, but he was one of the best relievers in the game in 2018 with the Brewers (1.29 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 15 saves).
Wick, Ryan and Wieck are likely ticketed for roles in the Opening Day bullpen, too, though none of the three have a long track record of MLB success. Ryan lost out to fellow southpaw Randy Rosario last spring before joining the team on the opening road trip and emerging as a trusted workhorse in the bullpen for the rest of the year. Wick was up and down between Chicago and Iowa before finally sticking and carving out a high-leverage role for himself in the second half. Wieck was acquired from the Padres in exchange for Carl Edwards Jr. at the trade deadline and after a month working in the Cubs system (including the Pitch Lab), inspired hope for the future with a strong September. It is possible the Cubs opt to send Wieck back down to the minors to continue his progress, but he seems like a good fit for the big-league roster as a left-handed pitcher who can get both lefties and righties out (which will be key under the new three-batter minimum rule).
Assuming all those guys are healthy, that’s five of the eight roles available in the Cubs bullpen (remember, there is a 13-pitcher maximum now under MLB’s new roster rules). That leaves a host of names competing for the final three spots.
It won’t end up being this simple, but at the moment, I opted to fill the final few roles with a trio of arms that are out of minor-league options in Mills, Underwood and Sadler. Underwood wowed in his 2019 debut by striking out all six Oakland A’s he faced, but was only utilized for 9.2 innings of relief work (with mixed results) in the big leagues after that. Sadler was acquired by the Dodgers in a small deal a few hours before Opening Ceremonies of Cubs Convention last month. The 29-year-old righty had a 2.14 ERA in 33 outings with the Rays and Dodgers last season.
Megill was a Rule 5 draft pick in December from the Padres and if he doesn’t stay on the 26-man roster all season, the Cubs would have to send him back to San Diego.
The rest of the group includes some intriguing names – what if 2020 is the year Maples puts it all together and finds a way to harness his elite stuff? What if Winkler rediscovers what made him a vital part of the Braves bullpen in 2018 or Cotton regains the form that made him a top prospect ahead of the 2017 season?
Given their injury history, the Cubs have been cautious with Morrow and Hultzen this spring and will continue to be in the early part of the season, monitoring the workload of both. It would be shocking to see either guy make the Opening Day roster, but Morrow especially could be a game-changer as the season moves on.
In general, the Cubs are throwing a lot of darts at the wall to see what might stick in the bullpen. They’re hoping for more “Pitch Lab” success stories like Ryan and the Wi(e)cks, ideally looking to identify one or two long-term pieces out of the group. At the very least, they have a bunch of relievers with minor-league options remaining, so they can rotate the last spot or two in the bullpen between Iowa and Chicago all summer.
Photo Courtesy of Chicago Cubs