Projecting the Cubs 2021 Opening Day roster: Part II
MESA, Ariz. — At the beginning of the offseason, we took a stab at what the Cubs’ 2021 Opening Day roster might look like.
Quite a bit has changed since then, so it’s time for an updated look at the roster picture as the Cubs approach their first spring training game.
Jed Hoyer’s front office made a flurry of moves in the weeks leading up to camp, adding veteran pieces to fill out the roster. The latest addition came over the weekend when outfielder Jake Marisnick’s deal became official.
“The veteran guys we’re bringing in here late are such a huge addition because they know their roles, they know where they’re going to be at, whether it’s the fourth or fifth outfielder spot, extra infielders, whatever the actual role might be that they’re brought in for,” David Ross said. “They know that coming in.
“They know where we’re at, what to expect from the guys that we already have here and what positions are already on lockdown as far as who’s gonna play everyday as long as they’re healthy. Nothing but buy-in from the guys I’ve run into so far.”
Even with the veteran role players in tow, there are still a few position battles that bear watching in spring training, namely at second base and on the pitching staff.
When the Cubs host the Pittsburgh Pirates for the regular season opener on April 1, here’s what their 26-man roster might look like:
Next up: P.J. Higgins, José Lobatón, Taylor Gushue
These spots are locked up barring injury. Contreras has already drawn a ton of praise early in spring training and the Cubs belive he’s primed for a huge year. Meanwhile, Romine signed a big-league deal in January to provide veteran depth behind Contreras.
The Cubs are high on Higgins and he could make his MLB debut this season if the need arises.
Next up: Matt Duffy, Patrick Wisdom, Sergio Alcántara
Rizzo, Bryant and Báez are clear locks. Bote is on a team-friendly deal and has filled in nicely as a role player and spot starter over the last few years. The Cubs acquired Vargas off waivers in September and they like the switch-hitter’s defense and versatility.
Hoerner is the big question mark here as the Cubs could opt for him to get everyday at-bats in Triple-A, a level he bypassed after shooting straight from Double-A to the majors in 2019. The young infielder has some development left on the offensive side of the ball but ultimately I think his defense, athleticism, baseball IQ and contact-oriented approach earn him a spot on the roster with the potential to claim the regular job at second base.
Duffy has played in more than 450 big-league games and finished just behind Bryant in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2015. He and Wisdom are in camp as non-roster invitees. Alcántara, a switch-hitting shortstop, was claimed off waivers earlier this month and was on the 40-man roster for a couple weeks. He was designated for assignment to create room for Brandon Workman, but cleared waivers and is now in camp as a non-roster player.
Next up: Cameron Maybin (reportedly), Michael Hermosillo, Ian Miller, Nick Martini, Rafael Ortega
Happ earned the everyday center field job to begin the 2020 season and never looked back. He has a strong hold on the role entering this year and slots in as the likely leadoff hitter once again. Heyward and Pederson will be the everyday corner outfielders but against tough left-handed starting pitchers, the right-handed Marisnick could draw a start. Marisnick also gives Ross options as an experienced and quality defender in center.
The reported addition of Maybin on a minor-league deal could change the equation here and add a fifth name into the outfield mix. He was a nice fit on the team after the trade deadline last year and is another right-handed veteran bat. If Maybin doesn’t make the team, the other non-roster invitees provide intriguing options plus Bryant, Bote, Hoerner and Vargas can all play the outfield.
Next up: Alec Mills (more on him later), Kohl Stewart, Shelby Miller, Tyson Miller, Cory Abbott, Brailyn Marquez, Keegan Thompson, Justin Steele, Gray Fenter
However the rotation ends up, it will cause ripple effects that will greatly impact the bullpen. In this case, I think Alzolay’s upside and repertoire earns him a rotation spot.
Hendricks is locked in as the ace, Davies is coming off his best season as a big-leaguer and both the Cubs and Arrieta feel confident he can turn back the clock in Chicago. Williams is another low-risk option with potential the Cubs believe they can tap into after a couple of down years with Pittsburgh.
Mills is obviously in play for the rotation, Stewart is on a big-league deal (but has a couple minor-league options remaining) and Shelby Miller is in camp as a non-roster invitee. The other pitchers could emerge as options if injuries strike.
Duane Underwood Jr.
Next up: Kyle Ryan, Pedro Strop (pending physical), Stewart, Fenter, Jonathan Holder, Dillon Maples, James Norwood, Robert Stock, Manny Rodriguez, Adam Morgan, Joe Biagini, James Bourque, Rex Brothers, Steele, Marquez, Michael Rucker, Jake Jewell, Jerry Vasto
This is the biggest competition this spring, as there are a ton of options throwing their name in the hat. There are close to 30 pitchers in spring training vying for the eight or nine bullpen spots.
“I don’t think that’s anywhere close to being mapped out yet,” Ross said of his bullpen. “There’s a lot of arms in camp. For the most part, a lot of stuff still has to happen in camp. Guys have to stay healthy and perform and show where they’re at and there’s definitely some competition on the back side of that bullpen.”
Of the group listed above, let’s start with Mills and work back from there. He is out of minor-league options and he’s clearly earned a spot on the major-league roster with his performance over the last few years. Health permitting, he will make the Opening Day roster but the Cubs may opt to have him in the bullpen to provide length at the start of the season and slide into the rotation as the year moves along.
When rosters moved back to 26 players for this season, MLB did away with the 13-pitcher maximum rule, so the Cubs very well could break camp with nine relievers in the bullpen to cover innings and manage each pitcher’s workload. In that case, Wieck is the choice here to earn the final spot in the bullpen to give Ross another lefty if Ryan (COVID-19 list) is unable to get up to speed.
Underwood is out of minor-league options and has potential as a young reliever. The Cubs retained Winkler and Adam after they showed their upside during their debut seasons in Chicago. They also re-signed Chafin and inked Workman to serve as veterans who can pitch in high-leverage situations and bridge the gap to Kimbrel. Wick will be right alongside them if he can get past his side injury that has lingered since last year.
Ross confirmed early in spring training that Kimbrel would slot in as the team’s closer after finishing 2020 in spectacular fashion (0 runs, 0 walks in September).
The reported addition of Strop on a minor-league deal could throw another veteran option into the mix while other pitchers who miss out on rotation spots (Stewart, Steele, etc.) could factor in here, as well. Fenter is a Rule 5 selection so if he doesn’t make the 26-man roster in some capacity, the Cubs will either have to send him back to the Orioles or work out a separate arrangement.