chicago cubs logoToday, the Chicago Cubs lost Brett Marshall and Brooks Raley on waivers, neither of which was utterly shocking, individually. But, taken together, it was something of a surprise to see the Cubs opening up not one 40-man roster spot – presumably for Jason Hammel – but two. Why the other spot? Why now? Was it just a matter of the Cubs trying to time waiving Marshall and Raley to try and get at least one of them through waivers? Or did the Cubs have another move on the way that required another 40-man spot?

Or was it an old move that required a 40-man spot?

Remember when the Cubs reportedly agreed to terms with pitcher James McDonald? It was the same day as the reported Hammel signing, and was originally reported as a minor league deal. Given McDonald’s relatively limited success in recent years (outside of his dominant first half in 2012, there’s not a ton to hang his hat on) and the shoulder woes that derailed his 2013 season, a minor league deal made a lot of sense.

But today, four separate reports – from Carrie Muskat, Jesse Rogers, Mark Gonzales, and Bruce Levine – describe the Marshall/Raley twin waiver moves as designed to open up spots on the 40-man roster for Hammel and McDonald. In other words, the reports are saying McDonald is getting a guaranteed, big league deal. None comments on the terms of the deal, however.

Were it just one report, I would discard it as something of a typo, but it’s hard to look the other way at this point. If McDonald is getting a big league deal, I will be surprised, to say the least.* Setting aside the performance and injury concerns with McDonald, 29, there are matters of roster space. If everyone is healthy, McDonald is going to beat out Jake Arrieta and/or Jason Hammel (and Carlos Villanueva and Chris Rusin) for a rotation spot behind Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, and Travis Wood. That doesn’t seem too likely.

Assuming health, and even if McDonald made the rotation (bumping someone to the bullpen), let’s take a look at the already-guaranteed dudes in the pen: Jose Veras, Pedro Strop, James Russell, Wesley Wright, Carlos Villanueva, and McDonald (again, assuming heath and a big league deal for McDonald). That leaves just one spot for Hector Rondon, Blake Parker, Alberto Cabrera (out of options), Justin Grimm, Tsuyoshi Wada, Jonathan Sanchez, Chang-Yong Lim, Chris Rusin, Neil Ramirez, Dallas Beeler, Marcus Hatley, Tommy Hottovy, Carlos Pimentel, Armando Rivero, Arodys Vizcaino, and Zac Rosscup. That’s 16 guys fighting for one spot, at least three of which – Rondon, Parker, and Cabrera – are guys you’d really want to see get a job (either because of previous performance or the risk of losing them).

That is all to say, adding McDonald on a big league deal may have its justifications, but it adds another questionable arm (without the upside associated with youth or team control) to a mix full of similarly questionable arms. But unlike the latter group, McDonald would be guaranteed a spot.

Should McDonald indeed get a big league deal, I’m going to start wondering whether there is an expectation that an arm or two will be dealt before Spring Training is over. Don’t get me wrong: this front office (rightly) loves pitching depth, and there are ways to maneuver all of these pieces without losing more than, say, Cabrera and a handful of the minor league deal guys. But with so many guaranteed spots gobbled up, I will wonder if there are already gears in motion on moving out an arm or two. That could be a big name like Samardzija, a mid-tier name like Villanueva, or a bullpen arm like Russell. I’m not saying anything will happen. I’m just going to wonder.

But we’ll see if McDonald is getting a big league deal after all, and how much he’s getting. The other wrinkle in all of this is that McDonald, if he’s to accrue some flip value by mid-season, is pretty much going to have to be in the rotation. It’s hard to see a spot for him opening up in the rotation without an injury or a trade.

*(If McDonald gets a big league deal, I’ll do a deeper dive into his numbers/injury history to see if there are some more positive signals that I missed on an initial, minor-league-deal-level look.)

  • Jim

    Late night post. I had these same thoughts, albeit not for Mcdonald. It would be quite curious. Could a trade be in order, requiring him to be on the 40 man?

  • Kyle

    McDonald on a big-league deal is so odd given what we know about McDonald that I have a hard time processing it. Like, it seems like an awful idea, but it seems *so* awful that I have to think there’s more to it than it seems.

    • Brett

      Someone tweeted me that his slider was the second best swing-and-miss pitch in the NL last year (haven’t verified), suggesting maybe there’s a chance he could be great in the bullpen? But even that sounds like a dude getting a minor league deal.

      I’m being as diplomatic as I can be for now, until all of the facts are out.

    • willis

      Right, so awful that it’s damn near shocking this FO would do make such a move on its own. Has to be something more here, or these reports are way off.

  • woody

    You mentioned earlier that Villanueva was told to report as a starter. Do you think maybe he could be bundled with Shark to possibly Toronto? It just seems to me with pitchers and catchers reporting tomorrow that something could happen real quick.

  • woody

    Maybe McDonald isn’t the one to take that roster spot. What if Shark is being moved and one of the players coming back requires a roster spot?

    • Mike

      I’d love that to be true, but can’t see a trade happening with Santana and Jiminez still available. Who knows though, maybe they will shock us. It probably is just McDonald getting a Major League deal though which is sad and depressing.

      • woody

        The earlier post from Brett said that Toronto and Texas had made inquiries about Villanueva this winter. And we know that during the winter meetings that the Jays were supposedly putting a package together for Shark, but nothing ever happened. Doesn’t seem rational to open up an extra spot on the 40 man roster for a guy with a minor league contract. Maybe Theo is in stealth mode. LOL

  • TWC

    James McDonald? You mean James Zell McDonald? I’m thinking this has less to do with his pitching abilities and more to do with one of the little-known covenants regarding the sale of the team to the Ricketts.


    • DarthHater

      I smell IRS involvement…

  • Jon

    Even if major league deal, nothing to get worked up over….

  • David

    I’m sooooooo excited for something to happen.

  • cubfanincardinalland

    28 years old, pitched 46 innings in 49 games, struck out 10.7 hitters per nine innings, 3.67 strikeout to walk ratio, 2.72 ERA and 1.165 Whip. And this guy(guess who he is) has to fight to make the team. This bullpen is much better than last season.
    And if Rondon comes out pitching like he did in September, he also will be real tough to keep of the ballclub. Just seems like the time might be right to move Villanueva if they can get some value, a lot of similar pieces are on this roster.

    • Bret Epic

      Blake Parker? If so, he’s always been sort of a unsung hero to me.

      • Bret Epic


  • Blackhawks1963

    McDonald to a major league deal is baffling, disturbing, upsetting, all of the above.

    So a rotation of Samardzija, Wood, Jackson, Hammel, probably Arrieta

    So a pen of Veres, Russell, Strop, Villenueva, McDonald for sure. With Wright, Rondon, Parker, Cabrera, Rosscup competing for 2 spots.

    • Kyle

      Wright got an MLB deal. I don’t think he’d be competing for anything. He’d be ahead of Russell on the depth chart.

      • Blackhawks1963

        Nope. So if Wright is a lock too then a battle royale is set up between Cabrera, Rondon, Parker and whoever else for one spot. Have to imagine Vizcaino will start the year in Iowa and be handled with care.

    • Jon

      The hand wringing over this is ridiculous. This is a 95-100 loss team regardless. Do you think Theo/Jed just got out of bed one morning and said ‘fck it, I like this guy, let’s give him a major league deal and 40 man spot.’?

      These guys spends dozens and dozens of hours contemplating even what may seem the trivia-list of moves. Maybe they sat with Bosio and there is something about McDonald he loves and thinks he can extract from him? (re the articles mentioning his knockout ‘slider’)

  • Jason P

    I find it odd that when people discuss the competition for the final couple bullpen spots, Blake Parker comes up as one of the guys on the fringe. He was the Cubs best reliever last year. His FIP and ERA were sub-3.

    I’d give up Villanueva, Rondon, Cabrera, McDonald, or Russell before I would Parker.

    • Kyle

      I’d leave Parker in, but those stats were in 46 innings. Not exactly written in stone that he can be that guy.

      There’s like a thousand different permutations that you could do in our bullpen and I wouldn’t be upset. But if a guy like Parker or Russell gets left out, I’d be impressed just because of the statement it would make about not guaranteeing jobs because of a small-sample success. Same reason I’m rooting for Vitters over Lake.

      • Jason P

        46 innings isn’t a great sample size, but it’s a heck of a lot more reliable then 10-15 spring innings. I say leave him in until he proves he’s not the guy we saw in 2013. If he’s ineffective, our depth will allow for him to be easily replaced.

        I’m rooting for Vitters to make the roster as well. Maybe he and Lake can share AB’s until one emerges as the clearly more effective option (that is, if one emerges).

    • Blackhawks1963

      Parker doesn’t have the best stuff and has only logged around 50 innings. He is probably Michael Bowden all over again in this regard. Yes he deserves and has earned the right to compete for an open bullpen spot. But he won’t be handed a job. There are better arms around.

      • Jason P

        Bowden was never good. Even in the one year he put up a sub-3 ERA it came with a FIP nearing 4.50 and a K/BB ratio under 2.

        Parker was just plain good last year and it had nothing to do with luck — 2.90 FIP with a boatload of strikeouts (10.7/9) and a limited number of walks (2.9/9).

        Moreover, while Parker isn’t exactly what I’d call a “power pitcher”, his fastball is still about 1 mph better than Bowden’s.

        I don’t think he’s going to post a 2.74 ERA every year, but even if that climbs three quarters of point, that’s still a guy I want around.

  • Serious Cubs Fan

    I wasn’t really annoyed about Raley being plucked off waivers, but I’m really disappointed about Brett Marshall not being kept for James McDonald. McDonald does not deserve a 40 man roster spot in my opinion. Marshall had more upside, IMO

    • ssckelley

      I agree, they say McDonald has a good slider but that sounds like another Marmol. If you do not have a decent fastball then the slider becomes ineffective. Last off season they named Marshall as having the best change up in the Yankees organization, at only 23 years old I liked his upside as well.

      But who knows, perhaps the staff got a look at Marshall before making these decisions and found something wrong with him or were not impressed. Perhaps McDonald is all that and he does have a lot more experience at the MLB level.

  • Oregon Cubs Fan

    Something just doesn’t make sense. McDonald does not seem like a guy they would need to give a major league contract to in order to get him. Even if there was a trade in the works, it would not require him to get a major league contract. They can keep a 40 man roster spot open as long as they want can’t they? No reason to fill it just to fill it. They can fill out the 40 man roster on the final day of spring training.

  • Benjamin Button

    What about Fujikawa? Won’t he be in the mix for the bullpen as well? Not sure of his time table, but surely he’ll be back at some point.

    • Kyle

      Eventually, yes, but I don’t think he’ll be ready to pitch in April.

      Presumably when he’s healthy, he’ll have a spot.

  • Caleb
  • Cubsin

    The two most likely explanations I see are (1) McDonald has looked 100% healthy with good velocity in his pre-season workouts or (2) a trade is in the works that would return an extra player or prospect who would require a 40-man roster spot. One possible example: Shark to the Blue Jays for Stroman, Rasmus and Nolin.

  • Jason Powers
    • Edwin

      Nice job. I like the use of standard deviations.

  • jptopdog

    I would be surprised if McDonald received a major league deal, less surprised if the opened a spot for Bonifacio, or Santana/ Jimenez.

    • CubFan Paul

      Put me down for Santana on a 3yr deal

  • http://BN Sacko

    Theo stated right after the winter meeting that Shark is Opening Day starter.
    McDonald to replace him or that spot on the 40 is unlikely.

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