As has been discussed here before over the last few weeks, the Cubs have a relatively crowded 40-man roster. Sure, they pared it a bit at the end of the season with a number of removals, but with so many young players (including many who had to be prematurely added to the 40-man roster like Jorge Soler, Gerardo Concepcion, Junior Lake, and Matt Szczur), the Cubs still face a number of difficult decisions as they construct their roster for next season.
The most immediate obstacle is the Rule 5 Draft. As Luke addressed last week, the Cubs have several interesting young players who will be eligible for selection in the Rule 5 Draft on December 6 if they are not added to the 40-man roster later this month. Further, free agents are going to start signing any day now, and 40-man roster spots could go quickly if the Cubs want to be in on their prime targets.
When you add it all up, you can see that the Cubs may have an issue when that Rule 5 roster date rolls around, unless they clear another spot or two and wait to sign any free agents until after the Rule 5 Draft (which they may not be able to do, depending on when their desired free agents are looking to sign). At best, without any additional roster moves, it’s looking like the Cubs will risk losing a player or two that they’d like not to lose.
I don’t want to overstate the Rule 5 Draft risk. Even in the Cubs’ situation, if they were unable to protect a single additional player, they are not likely to lose any future superstars. Yes, it would suck to lose Logan Watkins or Nick Struck or Trey McNutt or Christian Villanueva. But they aren’t likely to lose a future core piece (they wouldn’t risk it), and heck, the players might come back if they can’t stick on a big league roster next year.
Even if I ignore the Rule 5 risk, and say that isn’t a motivating factor in making these difficult roster decisions, here’s what is a motivating factor: if the 40-man is already at 36, and want to add at least two starting pitchers and a center fielder, probably a third baseman, probably a reliever or two, probably a Rule 5 selection of their own (they pick second), and possibly a veteran back-up catcher to pair with Welington Castillo … well, you can see why they’ll need to clear space no matter what.
Below is a pictorial representation of the Cubs’ 40-man roster as it exists today. In green, you have the virtual locks to remain on the 40-man throughout the Winter. Obviously you never say never with this front office, but they are the guys whom we are all expected to be on the team at the start of 2013.
In blue, you have the players who are likely to be with the team in 2013, and thus likely to be on the roster until after the Rule 5 Draft (but some of whom could be legitimate trade candidates for most of the offseason).
In yellow, you have the players who have too much value to risk losing for nothing in advance of the Rule 5 Draft, but who could be traded before then in order to open up a spot (I’m not saying these guys are likely to be dealt (in most cases, they aren’t) – I’m saying only that they have too much value to risk losing for nothing, but not so much value that they are presumed members of the 2013 roster). These demarcations aren’t perfect.
And in red, you have the players that the Cubs could – and in some cases should – risk de-rostering. By removing them from the 40-man roster, the players could depart via a waiver claim or free agency, depending on their individual situation; but such is the difficulty of the pre-Rule-5-Draft roster dance.
- I’ve said for some time now that it’s hard to see the Cubs not trying to make a move with a guy like Junior Lake or Matt Szczur sooner rather than later. Neither is a lock to contribute to the big club in 2013, which means a couple blocked up 40-man spots, and another option year used up by each. Perhaps there is a team out there that would be better situated to bear that minor burden for a year (or that is willing to give them a shot next year). Can the Cubs really put together a deal in the next couple weeks, though?
- Gerardo Concepcion is a tough one, and was almost a red. While I am by no means interested in giving up on him as a prospect based on one adjustment-and-mono-filled half-season, I do wonder whether his contract (on which he’s still owed some $3 to $5 million, depending on how his signing bonus is being paid out) would make him sufficiently unattractive that he could clear waivers if he were outrighted off the 40-man roster. I tend to doubt it, in which case the Cubs would have to ask themselves whether they’re willing to risk losing him for nothing (nothing but salary relief, that is). We also don’t know the details of his contract, which may preclude this kind of maneuvering.
- Because the Cubs picked up Carlos Gutierrez and Zach Putnam after the season and knowing these decisions were going to be coming, I’m assuming the Cubs are planning to keep them.
- Chris Rusin as red and Brooks Raley as yellow is a really fine distinction, but I suppose I see just a bit more upside in Raley. I tentatively expect both to stick on the roster, though.
- With the Cubs looking to pick up a veteran catcher (well, if they aren’t, they should be), Steve Clevenger becomes expendable. There are some very nice aspects to his game, and he could be a decent back-up in the future. But when it comes time to make difficult decisions, you don’t really hang your hat on “could be a decent back-up catcher in the future.”
- Many of these designations are debatable. The point here is less about drawing hard lines, and more about pointing out the areas where the conversation becomes difficult. Some of these guys are probably going to have to go.
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