With the bullpen picture now clear, the 25-man roster for Opening Day is set:
Jake Arrieta (15-day DL)
All in all, it’s a deep roster, though it’s obviously thin in elite talent. Plenty of upside, mostly because of the youth, which is great. But, as the prognosticators have accurately noted – again and again – there’s a ton of downside risk on this roster, too. The outfield could struggle to produce average numbers, even with massive platoons. Rookie struggles at third base, slow bounce back at short and first, and too much defensive-focus at second base could scuttle the infield offensively, too. A little regression from Travis Wood or injury troubles in the rotation could spell disaster, and the bullpen clearly offers as much breakout potential as breakdown.
I do love the versatility and the options Ricky Renteria will have in gaining platoon advantages, though. Maybe it’s the sunshine and roses that accompanies Opening Day every year, but I really can’t get myself to hate this roster. No, I don’t think they’re going to win 80 games, but I could see a little bit of joy in there.
The question is, how does this year’s iteration compare to the team that the Cubs broke camp with last year? The team that had decent background numbers, but, when it came to wins and losses, struggled so badly that it was torn apart as soon as early June?
Well, let’s take a look:
Matt Garza (15-day DL)
The rotation is actually pretty similar to last year, with the one big difference being the upside difference in a Matt Garza return versus a Jake Arrieta return. The rotation performed quite well in the early going last year, so maybe the same will be true this year. Of course, I’d expect some natural regression from Travis Wood (perhaps offset by positive regression from Edwin Jackson?), and I’m not sure Jason Hammel, as much as I like him, can match Scott Feldman’s early-season dominance.
I think this year’s bullpen pretty clearly looks stronger than last year’s – that is to say, it looks clearly stronger, even if not dramatically stronger. There’s upside that wasn’t there last year, and a little more stability at the back end. I don’t want to hindsight things too badly, but you could have predicted the Camp falloff, and you knew Rondon might struggle out of the gate, being a Rule 5 pick coming back from injury.
Although Clevenger was really more of a utility player, he was able to catch. You add him to a fantastic backup in Navarro, and this was a much stronger spot last year. Maybe Castillo improves sufficiently to offset the difference, or maybe Baker’s latent defensive ability (pitch-framing, instruction for pitchers and Castillo) actually steps things up this year despite the obvious offensive step back.
Alberto Gonzalez (Darwin Barney was on the DL)
You could throw Clevenger in here, but, either way, there’s a pretty extreme difference between last year and this year. Bonifacio blows Lillibridge out of the water, and his presence – combined with Mike Olt – could improve the production at both third and second base.
As clearly better as the infield and bullpen are this year, the outfield is clearly worse. Not only is there no starter quite like Alfonso Soriano, who had the potential to be a well above-average offensive performer every day (and, ultimately, he was), but, on paper, Scott Hairston was probably the best fourth outfielder in baseball. You could argue that the Cubs have a couple of the best fourth and fifth outfielders again this year, but they’ll be playing the role of part-time starter. You pretty much have to dream on the upside of Lake and Kalish to convince yourself that the outfield this year, on paper, is in the same league as last year’s group (which, quite frankly, wasn’t all that great).
That said, I could see Sweeney producing as well as DeJesus did, and it’s conceivable that Schierholtz/Ruggiano together well out-produce Schierholtz/Hairston in the early going (Hairston was a disaster). Using some optimal platooning, and with some serious luck from Lake, this outfield could be better than last year’s version ultimately was. But, as of Opening Day, on paper, it looks worse.
So, all in all, I think this year’s roster probably looks just about on par with last year’s. But there are two important caveats: (1) this year’s roster has a great deal more youth and upside potential, even if there’s also downside risk; and (2) this year’s roster offers a great deal of versatility and flexibility on the offensive side, which, if used properly, can translate to more wins.
In the end … just get here, baseball.