I had meant to post these articles for the other NL central clubs as Spring Training previews, but there were several roster moves and additions from the various camps, so I thought it best to wait until the roster situations became more crystalized, instead of providing constant updates. I’ll outline the transactions the clubs have made since the start of camp, as well as provide the existing 40-man roster and NRIs remaining in camp, together with notes on the available jobs and roster situation.
2/27/21: Sent LHP Zach Bryant to the Boston Red Sox as the player to be named later in the August 31st, 2020 Josh Osich trade.
2/28/21: Designated RHP Robert Stock for assignment. Activated LHP Kyle Ryan from the COVID-19 Related IL. 40-man roster still full.
Ryan had to be added back to the 40-man once he came back from the COVID-19 Related IL, which required a roster trim. Stock, a former Cardinal farmhand as a catcher, eventually surfaced in the majors with the Padres in 2018 as a reliever. His control has fallen off a cliff since that decent season, and despite recently claiming him on waivers, the Cubs just didn’t think he could crack the roster with all of the other right-handed pitching options available. He will remain in the organization because he doesn’t have the right to elect free agency in lieu of an outright assignment to the minors.
3/2/21: Re-signed RHP Ryan Tepera to a 1-year, $800,000 contract. To make room on the 40-man roster, designated RHP Duane Underwood, Jr. for assignment. Outrighted RHP Robert Stock to AAA Iowa. 40-man roster still full.
This was a good signing by the Cubs, as Tepera was one of the best relievers the club had last season. His cutter had the highest whiff rate of anyone in baseball. Although Tepera’s contract calls for a base salary of $100,000 less than last year, he can max out by an additional $950,000 if he pitches 60 games and is on the active roster for 120 days.
Underwood has been in the Cubs’ organization since 2012, when he was a 17-year old second-round draft choice. Once one of the more promising starting pitching prospects in the system, he had trouble staying healthy, had a smattering of issues with command, and always had low strikeout rates in the seasons where he did see extended action in the rotation. He made one start for the big club in 2018, and then spent part of 2019 and all of 2020 in the bullpen. Underwood’s peripherals in the majors had actually been fine, and he struck out over 30% of the batters he faced last year. Despite that, he’s given up more contact than you’d like for anyone in a high-leverage situation, and he gave up 5 homers in only 20.2 IP last season. The Cubs probably didn’t want to make this move, but just ran out of time with Underwood, as he was out of options. I can see an argument where the club would be better off with Underwood instead of someone like Brandon Workman.
3/5/21: Signed IF Eric Sogard to a minor league deal and invited him to spring training.
3/7/21: Traded RHP Duane Underwood, Jr. to the Pittsburgh Pirates for 1B Shendrik Apostel.
Apostel is a 20-year old first baseman that has only played 2 seasons in the Dominican Summer League, with 68 games total under his belt. The Cubs must have figured that someone would have just taken Underwood off of their hands for the waiver price, so tried to get something back.
3/12/21: Returned Rule 5 pick RHP Gray Fenter to the Baltimore Orioles. 40-man roster at 39. Optioned RHP Cory Abbott, RHP Tyson Miller and RHP Kohl Stewart to AAA Iowa. Optioned RHP Manuel Rodriguez, C Miguel Amaya and IF Christopher Morel to AA Tennessee. Assigned RHPs James Borque, Juan Gamez, Jake Jewell, Tommy Nance, Michael Rucker, Robert Stock, LHPs Brendon Little and Jerry Vasto, Cs Taylor Gushue and Tyler Payne, IFs Abiatal Avelino, Alfonso Rivas, Chase Strumpf, Andy Weber and Patrick Wisdom and OF Brennen Davis to minor league camp. 49 players left in camp (33 40-man roster players + 16 NRIs).
I never did understand why the Cubs drafted Fenter in the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft in the first place. Although he had a nice pedigree and some upside, he’s 25 years old, has been injured a lot, has yet to pitch above A ball and doesn’t look ready for the majors. If he hadn’t been a Rule 5 player, they almost certainly would have DFAd him when they signed Ryan Tepera, but because of the Rule 5 rules, today was the first day that he was allowed to be outrighted to the minor leagues. The pick essentially cost the club Duane Underwood, Jr. As it stands, the Cubs get $50,000 back out of their original draft price and a 40-man roster spot opens up.
3/15/21: Optioned RHP Keegan Thompson to AAA Iowa. Re-assigned IF Trent Giambrone to minor league camp. 47 players left in camp (32 40-man roster players + 15 NRIs).
3/19/21: Optioned RHP James Norwood, LHP Kyle Ryan and LHP Justin Steele to AAA Iowa. Optioned LHP Brailyn Marquez to AA Tennessee. Re-assigned RHP Joe Biagini, C Jose Lobaton, and OFs Michael Hermosillo, Nick Martini and Ian Miller to minor league camp. 38 players left in camp (28 40-man roster players + 10 NRIs).
Cory Abbott (R, 3), Jason Adam (R, 2), Adbert Alzolay (R, 1), Jake Arrieta (R, N/A), Andrew Chafin (L, N/A), Zach Davies (R, N/A), Kyle Hendricks (R, N/A), Jonathan Holder (R, 1), Craig Kimbrel (R, N/A), Dillon Maples (R), Brailyn Marquez (L, 3), Tyson Miller (R, 2), Alec Mills (R), James Norwood (R, 1), Manuel Rodriguez (R, 2), Kyle Ryan (L, 1), Justin Steele (L, 1), Kohl Stewart (R, 2), Ryan Tepera (R, N/A), Keegan Thompson (R, 3), Rowan Wick (R, 1), Brad Wieck (L, 1), Trevor Williams (R, 3), Dan Winkler (R, N/A), Brandon Workman (R)
Miguel Amaya (2), Willson Contreras (2), Austin Romine
Javier Baez (N/A), David Bote (2), Kris Bryant (N/A), Nico Hoerner (3), Christopher Morel (3), Anthony Rizzo (N/A), Ildemaro Vargas
Ian Happ (2), Jason Heyward (N/A), Jake Marisnick (N/A), Joc Pederson (N/A)
*Adbert Alzolay has a fourth minor league option
NON-ROSTER INVITEES (10)
Rex Brothers (L), Trevor Megill (R), Shelby Miller (R), Adam Morgan (L), Pedro Strop (R),
Matt Duffy, Eric Sogard
Cameron Maybin, Rafael Ortega
*DJ Snelten was initially a non-roster invitee pitcher, but showed up to camp with an elbow injury and was sent home.
*Sergio Alcantara was a non-roster invitee infielder after being outrighted to AAA Iowa, but never has been in camp because of visa issues. He may still technically be on the spring roster, but he’s never been physically present, and the Cubs don’t seem to be counting him in the reports.
*With the exception of RHP Trevor Megill, all of the NRIs remaining in camp have prior MLB experience. There are special rules for players signed to a minor league deal that were declared Article XX-B free agents after the previous World Series. These players were on a 40-man roster, had 6 more years of MLB service time, and were otherwise unsigned for 2021. For the Cubs, IF Eric Sogard and OF Cameron Maybin fit this description. Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, if these players are not released by noon eastern time by the 5th day prior to opening day, or advised in writing by that time that the club will put the player on the opening day active roster or major league injured list, the players automatically get a $100,000 retention bonus. They also get an automatic right to opt out of their minor league deal by June 1st if they aren’t added to the active roster or the major league injured list by then. The deadline is this Saturday, March 27th. Although RHP Shelby Miller, RHP Pedro Strop and C Jose Lobaton have more than 6 years of MLB service time, they are not covered by the rule because they were not on a MLB 40-man roster when free agents were declared this past November. In addition to Sogard, Maybin, Miller and Strop, the only other NRIs that look to have a shot to make the opening day roster are C P.J. Higgins and LHP Rex Brothers. Sometimes NRIs have negotiated a contractual opt out if they are not added to the 40-man roster by the end of spring training. It is unknown whether the NRIs have such a provision in their contracts, and the answer to that question is ultimately important in predicting the roster.
OPENING DAY OUTLOOK AND JOBS
As with most clubs, the ultimate answer to the opening day roster questions depends on whether the club decides to take 13 or 14 pitchers, which would leave the club with 5 or 4 bench jobs, respectively.
*Rotation: Kyle Hendricks, Zach Davies, Jake Arrieta, Trevor Williams and Alec Mills look to have the rotation locked up. The final rotation job had been considered to be a contest between Mills, who is out of options, and Adbert Alzolay, who has also exhausted 3 options, but was awaiting a ruling from an arbitrator on whether he had a 4th option. Neither pitcher has thrown well in camp, but now that the Cubs have learned that Alzolay will get a 4th option, there’s a decent chance he gets optioned to keep his arm stretched out as a starter. He hasn’t pitched in an official spring game since March 13th.
*Bullpen: Five jobs go to Andrew Chafin (lefty), Craig Kimbrel (closer), Ryan Tepera, Dan Winkler and Brandon Workman right off the kick because they have major league deals, can’t be optioned, and haven’t completely spiked themselves in spring. Dillon Maples has struggled in the majors so far, but he has talent, is also out of options, and has pitched well enough in the spring to keep a job. That’s the 6th job. They’re going to need another left-hander, and right now NRI Rex Brothers has been killing it in camp, and some observers believe that he may be the best lefty the Cubs have available to use in the pen. The Cubs will have to DFA a player to add Brothers. That’s job #7. Normally, Rowan Wick would have been a job for sure, but he has an intercostal strain, hasn’t pitched all spring, and will open the season on at least the 10-day IL. If Alzolay gets optioned, it looks like it will come down Jason Adam, Jonathan Holder and lefty Brad Wieck for one or two jobs, depending on how many pitchers the Cubs decide to take.
The wild card is Shelby Miller. He is not expected to win a rotation job. But the club has said that it will need long relief and that even if someone doesn’t technically open the season in the rotation, pitchers other than the initial starting five will make regular season starts. While Miller has pitched well in the spring, he opted out last year, and has a significant injury history. One would think a club would want a pitcher like that to have a regular schedule, which isn’t always possible as a bullpen member. It’s also unknown if Miller has a contractual opt out, and another factor is that the AAA season has been delayed. Pedro Strop, another NRI and former long-time Cub, may have cost himself a bullpen job by violating COVID-19 protocols during spring. While he only lost a handful of days, he didn’t make his spring debut until this past Saturday, and probably won’t make the opening day roster on the grounds that he hasn’t had enough outings.
*Although Austin Romine had the job to back Willson Contreras up at catcher wrapped up, he sprained his knee. It wasn’t initially assumed to be serious, but he hasn’t played since March 6th, and it looks like he will open the season on the 10-day IL. The club had veteran Jose Lobaton as a camp NRI, but he has just been re-assigned to minor league camp, and it looks like P.J. Higgins, an organizational soldier, who will turn 28 years old in May, will get the nod. He has also played 1B, 2B and 3B in the minors. With the Cubs’ 40-man roster at 39, a roster spot is freely available.
*Second base: This is has been the major position player competition in spring, a battle between David Bote, Nico Hoerner and Ildemaro Vargas. A first-round draft choice in 2018 as a shortstop, Hoerner has been rushed. He skipped the AAA level and was pressed into service on the major league roster late in 2019 after the Cubs suffered some injuries. His glove is considered to be major league ready, but the club is not convinced that his bat is. Bote is considered the stronger offensive option, and can also play third, but probably not a serious option to play shortstop in other than an emergency. Lurking in the background is switch-hitting Ildemaro Vargas, who is on the 40-man roster, is out of options, and can play all over the infield. This competition is also affected by the choice of the size of the bench. Hoerner and Bote both have minor league options. Vargas is a serious DFA candidate. Not only is he out of options, but he’s never really hit in the majors. If Hoerner wins the job, Bote will surely stick around because of his bat. He’s not a stud offensively, but out of all the options, he’s the only one available with any real power potential.
The other complication with Vargas is that NRI Eric Sogard is in serious consideration to win a backup infield job. He doesn’t switch hit, but is a left-handed complement to Bote and Hoerner. Sogard didn’t hit last year with the Brewers, but slashed .290/.353/.457 in his last full season, and can play all the infield positions. The choice on Sogard will have to be made by this Saturday, as I explained above. I don’t expect Vargas to be on the 40-man roster much longer.
Other than 2nd base, the infield is set with Anthony Rizzo at first, Jay Baez at short and Kris Bryant at 3rd. Bryant might occasionally get some time in left against a tough left-hander.
*Outfield: This also seems pretty set. Jason Heyward is in right and Ian Happ will patrol center. The club seems committed to letting Joc Pederson start every day in left field, although he has struggled mightily against lefties in the past. The club exemplified this commitment by jettisoning Phillip Ervin, who could have served as Pederson’s platoon partner, in favor of signing Jake Marisnick, who is basically a backup center fielder that doesn’t hit much. Marisnick has been slowed by a calf issue this spring, but will make the club as a defensive replacement. The club might have room to carry Cameron Maybin as a 5th outfielder, depending on the situation. That will also have to be decided by Saturday.
*Ultimately the bench looks like it might be Higgins, Bote, Sogard, and Marisnick if the club takes 14 pitchers and Hoerner gets the 2nd base job. I don’t see Vargas making the club even if Hoerner is optioned to start the season, because he’s basically a worse version of Sogard. I think in that case Maybin would get the 4th bench job, and if there is a 5th bench job, it’s probably Maybin’s as well. After adding Higgins to the 40-man as a backup catcher, the club will have to make at least two 40-man roster trims to add Brothers to the bullpen and Sogard to the bench. A third trim will have to be made if the club decides to carry Maybin. Vargas is almost certainly out. I’m not sure about Rowan Wick’s timetable to return, but he’s the only possible 60-day IL move I know of that the Cubs have in their back pocket, and I’m not sure they’re prepared to commit to leaving him off the active roster for the first 60 days of the season. If not, that means at least one, and maybe two pitchers are at risk of being DFAd. Kohl Stewart would probably be the first candidate to get axed.