While divisional match-ups have always been important, especially with realignment and the unbalanced schedule many years ago, they are even more critical this year. If the rumored schedule holds, clubs will play 40 out of just 60 total games against their division rivals. At least for me, it seems both more important and more interesting to keep up with what the other clubs in the NL Central are doing and how they are managing their rosters. In this first part of a 4-part NL Central Camp Preview, I will examine the moves that the Chicago Cubs have made since the end of the 2019 season, and offer some notes for 2020.
40-MAN LOSSES FROM 2019
ARTICLE XX-B FREE AGENCY (6 or more yrs MLB service)
LHP Xavier Cedeno, LHP Cole Hamels, UT Ben Zobrist, RHP Steve Cishek, C Jonathan Lucroy, RHP Brandon Kintzler, OF Nick Castellanos, RHP Pedro Strop, LHP Derek Holland (option declined), RHP Tony Barnette (option declined), RHP Brandon Morrow (option declined with buyout), RHP Kendall Graveman (option declined), RHP David Phelps (option declined)
IF Addison Russell, LHP Danny Hultzen
OUTRIGHTED TO MINORS
RHP Allen Webster (declared automatic Rule 55 minor league free agent)
UT Tony Kemp (traded to Oakland Athletics for a minor league first baseman)
**Of the subtractions, only RHP Brandon Morrow and LHP Danny Hultzen remain in the organization, having signed minor league deals with spring training invites back in December.
40-MAN ADDITIONS FOR 2020
CONTRACTS PURCHASED FROM MINORS
RHP Colin Rea, RHP Manuel Rodriguez, RHP Tyson Miller, C Miguel Amaya, IF Zack Short
RULE 5 DRAFT
RHP Trevor Megill (from San Diego Padres organization)
RHP Jharel Cotton (from Oakland Athletics for cash). Was eligible for arbitration as a Super Two, and signed a 1 year, $640,000 deal after the trade to avoid arbitration. Has only pitched in 3 professional games (all on a minor league rehab assignment in 2019) since making 24 starts for the 2017 Athletics club. Had Tommy John surgery in March of 2018, and missed almost the entire 2019 season because of a hamstring issue that he sustained during his recovery, which itself required surgery. The overwhelming majority of Cotton’s service time was earned while on various injured lists.
RHP Casey Sadler (from Los Angeles Dodgers for a minor league infielder). Will be 30 years old by the time the season starts. Still a pre-arb player with just over 1 year of MLB service time, and is out of options. Pitched in only 9 MLB games from 2014-2018 while in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, with none in 2016 or 2017 after Tommy John surgery following the 2015 season. Pitched a career-high 33 MLB games in 2019 (9 for the Tampa Bay Rays and 24 for the Dodgers).
FREE AGENT SIGNINGS
RHP Dan Winkler, outrighted to the minors by San Francisco Giants on August 3rd, 2019. Reported to AAA, but elected free agency in lieu of the assignment at the end of the 2019 regular season. Only lasted one day on the Giants’ 40-man roster after being traded from the Atlanta Braves to the Giants with minor league RHP Tristan Beck for RHP Mark Melancon. Signed 1 year split contract, $750,000 while in majors (with potential extra $750,000 in performance bonuses based on games pitched), $200,000 while in minors. Arbitration eligible.
RHP Ryan Tepera, released by Toronto Blue Jays on November 7th, 2019. Signed 1 year split contract, $900,000 while in majors, $300,000 while in minors. Arbitration eligible.
OF Steven Souza, Jr., non-tendered by Arizona Diamondbacks. Signed 1 year, $1 million deal with a potential extra $2 million in performance and roster bonuses based on number of plate appearances and days on the active roster. Arbitration eligible
RHP Jeremy Jeffress, released by Milwaukee Brewers on September 1st, 2019, which pre-empted an inevitable decision to decline options for 2019 ($3.175 million) and 2020 ($4.3 million). Signed to 1 year, $800,000 deal, with a potential extra $200,000 in performance bonuses based on games pitched. Only new addition that will be a possible Article XX-B free agent at the end of the season.
FIRST SPRING TRAINING
The Cubs opened the first spring training with a full 40-man roster and 21 non-roster invitees, and added another NRI on February 18th, for a total of 62 in camp.
3/8/20: Optioned RHP Tyson Miller and IF Robel Garcia to AAA Iowa. Optioned LHP Justin Steele and RHP Manuel Rodriguez to AA Tennessee. Assigned RHP Jason Adam, RHP Oscar De La Cruz, RHP Caleb Simpson, RHP Brock Stewart, LHP Tyler Olson, LHP C.D. Pelham and C Jhonny Pereda to minor league camp. Re-claimed Rule 5 draft pick RHP Michael Rucker from the Baltimore Orioles and assigned him outright to AAA Iowa. 51 in camp (36 40-man roster players + 15 NRIs).
3/10/20: Optioned RHP Adbert Alzolay, RHP Colin Rea and IF Zack Short to AAA Iowa. Optioned C Miguel Amaya to AA Tennessee. Assigned IF Carlos Asuaje, IF Trent Giambrone, IF Corban Joseph and OF Noel Cuevas to minor league camp. Added RHP Michael Rucker to major league camp as a NRI. 44 in camp (32 40-man roster players + 12 NRIs).
3/11/20: Optioned RHP James Norwood to AAA Iowa. Assigned LHP Danny Hultzen, RHP Dakota Mekkes, LHP Wyatt Short and RHP Ben Taylor to minor league camp. 39 in camp (31 40-man roster players + 8 NRIs).
3/26/20: Optioned RHP Dillon Maples to AAA Iowa
By this point, spring training had been cancelled and opening day had been postponed. The Cubs’ non-existent camp roster of 38 consisted of 30 40-man roster players (10 players had been optioned to the minor leagues). The 8 NRIs left over were LHP Rex Brothers, C P.J. Higgins, IF Jason Kipnis, OF Ian Miller, RHP Brandon Morrow, IF Hernan Perez, C Josh Phegley and RHP Michael Rucker.
CUBS ANNOUNCE 50-MAN CLUB PLAYER POOL
Unlike the Cardinals, the Cubs have already allocated players among their Summer Camp Roster and their Alternate Training Site located in South Bend, Indiana, the home of the club’s Class A South Bend Cubs affiliate. Ten spots remain open in the total pool. The players listed in italics below are non-40-man roster players. The pitcher’s handedness is listed in parentheses. Also in the parentheses is the number of minor league options remaining, if the player is on the 40-man roster. If there is no number in parentheses for a 40-man roster player, that indicates he is out of options. If “N/A” is in parentheses, that means that he technically has minor league options remaining, but because he has 5 years of more of MLB service time, he may not be assigned to the minor leagues without his consent.
SUMMER CAMP ROSTER (39)
Rex Brothers (L), Tyler Chatwood (R), Jharel Cotton (R, 1), Yu Darvish (R, N/A), Kyle Hendricks (R, N/A), Danny Hultzen (L), Jeremy Jeffress (R), Craig Kimbrel (R, N/A), Jon Lester (L, N/A), Dillon Maples (R, 1), Trevor Megill (R, N/A, Rule 5), Alec Mills (R), James Norwood (R, 1), Jose Quintana (L, N/A), Colin Rea (R, 2), Kyle Ryan (L, 1), Casey Sadler (R), Ryan Tepera (R, 1), Duane Underwood, Jr. (R), Rowan Wick (R, 1), Brad Wieck (L, 1), Dan Winkler (R, 2)
Victor Caratini (1), Willson Contreras (2), P.J. Higgins, Josh Phegley
Javier Baez (2), David Bote (2), Kris Bryant (3), Daniel Descalso (N/A), Nico Hoerner (3), Jason Kipnis, Anthony Rizzo (N/A)
Albert Almora, Jr. (2), Ian Happ (2), Jason Heyward (N/A), Ian Miller, Kyle Schwarber (2), Steven Souza, Jr. (N/A)
ALTERNATE TRAINING SITE (11)
Jason Adam (R), Adbert Alzolay (R, 1), Juan Gamez (R), Brailyn Marquez (L), Dakota Mekkes (R), Michael Rucker (R)
Miguel Amaya (3)
Robel Garcia (2), Christoper Morel
Brennen Davis, Mark Zagunis
ROSTER ANALYSIS AND NOTES
*Of the 39 players that have been invited to summer camp, the Cubs have 33 out of 40 40-man roster players and 6 NRIs. Five of the NRIs— LHP Alex Brothers, C P.J. Higgins, C Josh Phegley, IF Jason Kipnis and OF Ian Miller were invited to the first spring training and were lasted all the way until camp was shut down. The remaining summer camp NRI, LHP Danny Hultzen, was cut from the first camp, but has been invited back. RHPs Colin Rea, James Norwood and Dillon Maples were all optioned during the first camp, and and I am treating them as being recalled because they have been invited back to summer camp.
*There were 7 40-man roster players excluded from the major league summer camp. Three players, RHP Adbert Alzolay, C Miguel Amaya and IF Robel Garcia, were optioned during the first camp and have been assigned to the Alternate Training Site. I will treat them as remaining on option. At one time considered one of the top arms in the system, Alzolay’s AAA season in 2018 ended in May after only 8 starts due to a severe lat strain. Injuries limited him to less than 70 innings last season in a reunion tour with AAA. He did make his major league debut last June, pitching one game in middle relief and two starts before being optioned in early July and coming back as a September call-up. In 12.1 total IP, Alzolay gave up 13 H, 10 ER, 4 HR and 9 BB. He is on his last option year. Amaya was just added to the 40-man roster in November to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. One of the top catching prospects in the game with a little pop in his bat, he has never played above Class A-Advanced, but was invited to the Arizona Fall League.
*Garcia’s story is crazy cool. He was originally signed in 2010 a couple of months shy of his 17th birthday by the Cleveland Indians organization as an undrafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic. He topped out in A ball and was released on his 21st birthday in 2014. He was out of baseball for two years and moved to Italy to be with his wife, a Dominican native who had moved to Italy as a baby. He played independent ball there for one year, then caught on with the Italian Baseball League for two years after that, joining the Italian National Team after his club won the 2018 Italian Baseball League championship. An area scout for the Cubs spotted the then 25-year old Garcia in October 2018 in a game he was playing for Team Italy against the Cincinnati Reds’ entry in the Arizona Instructional League and was impressed enough to convince his bosses to sign Garcia to a minor league deal later that month. Initially assigned to AA Tennessee, he was promoted to AAA Iowa after 22 games and busted out, slashing .284/.369/.586 across both levels with 27 HR. The switch-hitter made his major league debut on July 3rd of last season, spent the rest of July with the big club and then returned as a September call-up. In 31 total games, he did smack 5 home runs, but had 35 SO in 80 PA (43.8%). He’s not known as a defensive wizard, but can play 3B, 2B and the corner outfield spots. He might not have anything else to prove in AAA, at least with the bat.
*There were 4 other 40-man roster players left off the summer camp roster that have been excluded from the Club Player Pool altogether: RHP Tyson Miller, RHP Manuel Rodriguez, LHP Justin Steele and IF Zack Short. I am treating them as also remaining on option. Miller (split 2019 between AA and AAA), Rodriguez (A-Advanced) and Short (split between AA and AAA, with a stint in the Arizona Fall League) were just added to the 40-man roster in November to protect them from the Rule 5 draft. Steele was drafted by the Cubs out of high school in 2014, is now in his 7th year in the organization and has yet to pitch in AAA. His 2017 season with Class A-Advanced Myrtle Beach was cut short in August by Tommy John surgery, and he returned to the mound to make 11 starts across 3 levels starting in July of 2018 after only 11 months on the shelf. But he was only able to make 11 starts last season with AA Tennessee to the tune of a 5.59 ERA and almost 5 walks per 9.
*Of the 3 original NRIs that made it all the way through the first abbreviated camp, but were not invited to summer camp, RHP Michael Rucker was assigned to the Alternate Training Site, and RHP Brandon Morrow and UT Hernan Perez have been left off of the Club Player Pool entirely. It’s not entirely accurate to say that RHP Brandon Morrow “made it through spring training.” He was the Cubs’ closer in 2018 until he was shut down in mid-July, missed all of 2019 due to injury, was paid $3 million to buy out his 2020 option, and signed a minor league deal for 2020. Morrow suffered through a chest strain and a mild calf tear, and his availability for opening day was in question. As an Article XX-B free agent that signed a minor league deal, the club will have to decide by 5 days before opening day if they want to release him. If they don’t, and they don’t add him to the 40-man roster or 60-day IL by opening day, Morrow is entitled to a $100,000 retention bonus. Under normal conditions, he would also be able to opt out of his deal by June 1st if he has not been added to the active roster or major league injured list by that date. Since this is not a normal season, the opt-out date is unclear. UT Hernan Perez has a versatile glove, but hasn’t been able to crack a .300 OBP in 3 years and the apple has fallen far from the tree since his 2016 season with the Brewers.
*That just leaves 7 non-40-man roster players that are part of the CPP, but assigned to the Alternate Training Site instead of summer camp. RHP Jason Adam and RHP Dakota Mekkes were invited to the first spring training, but were cut before camp closed. There are thus 5 brand new names that have surfaced on the CPP that were not invited to the first spring training. RHP Juan Gamez, now 26 years old, was a 31st round draft choice by the Minnesota Twins in the 2016 draft, but was released after spending 3 seasons in rookie ball where he was plagued by control issues. He wasn’t really any better in one season with the Mexican League in 2019, but this signing was supposedly based on his time in the Mexican Pacific Winter League this past winter, where he had 32 strikeouts to only 19 walks in 33.1 IP.
*LHP Brailyn Marquez is considered to be the top pitching prospect in the organization by Fangraphs, features a 96 mph fastball, is only 21 years old, and needs work on his secondary pitches. He split last season between A and A-Advanced. Infielder Christopher Morel is another 21-year old prospect from the Dominican that has primarily played third base. Has some pop in the bat, but has yet to play above A ball, so he has time to work on his lack of patience at the plate. Brennen Davis is the top outfield prospect in the organization. A 2nd round pick in 2018 out of high school, he went straight from only 18 games in the rookie complex league in 2018 to Class A South Bend last season, where he slashed .305/.381/.525. with 8 HR in 204 PA. Davis only had 204 PA over 50 games because of hand injuries. He’s 6’4”, 175 pounds with power and speed. OF Mark Zagunis is an organizational soldier with 42 games of MLB experience with the Cubs over the past 3 seasons. He has a career OBP in the minor leagues of .396, and over parts of 4 seasons in AAA has slashed .276/.385/.438. He has just fallen behind other candidates in the outfield, one reason being the he strikes out too much without the home run pop to show for it. And in 2019 in AAA, his walk rate went way down, while his strikeout rate went way up. He was outrighted off of the 40-man roster last November.
*Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Cubs’ camp is not who will win any particular job, but how new manager David Ross and his staff will handle the job. Ross retired after a 14-year MLB career as a catcher, last serving for the 2016 Cubs’ World Series winning club. He has no managerial experience, and the club has four new coaches on the staff. He’s actually played with some of these guys. Will they listen to him?
*While the starters will throw fewer innings and there will be piggybacks, the top four starters are Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana. Tyler Chatwood was expected to win the 5th starter’s job, but with the 30-man roster, it’s probably going to be all hands on deck for most clubs. The bullpen was a dumpster fire last season, and there are numerous candidates for jobs with minor league options available. Kimbrel and Mills are locks, and they’ll probably try almost everyone at first. The DH allows the club to put Schwarber in that spot and field perhaps the best defensive outfield in the division with Happ in LF, Almora in CF and Heyward in RF. Although righty-swinging David Bote has done well offensively in a brief trial at second base and has a reverse platoon split, non-roster invitee Jason Kipnis has a strong chance to win the job. Kipnis has to fight off not only Bote, but prospect Nico Hoerner and veteran Daniel Descalso. Each one of those guys is a lock to make the 30-man roster, which will keep Robel Garcia in the minor leagues for now. Second base is easily the most interesting job battle of camp.
*The most interesting roster discussion for the Cubs, however, will take place after this season, when they are set to lose all but two of their starters, hope that Jon Lester’s $25 million option hadn’t vested based on a pro-rated 74 IP this season, and find themselves with several arbitration cases and raises.
*One final quirk about Kris Bryant. Ignore the fact that he has three options remaining. He has 4 years and 171 days of service, meaning that after just one day of service on the active roster, he will not be able to be sent to the minors without consent. Not that anyone would be dumb enough to do that anyway.