Today, 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.)