The Chicago Cubs have reportedly agreed to a deal with outfield Chris Denorfia, though it has not yet been made official. Because the 40-man roster is full, the Cubs will have to make a roster move before adding Denorfia. While that could be some kind of trade (we know that Welington Castillo, for example, is going to go at some point), and it could be an outfielder moving out, it’s just as possible that the Cubs will merely try to pass someone through waivers after designating them for assignment. It’s still early enough in the offseason that you don’t really have to worry about roster composition at the margins, so it’s just as likely a reliever gets DFA’d to make room for Denorfia as an outfielder.
But, speaking of that outfield, what does the addition of Denorfia mean?
Well, we’ve been expecting a veteran, righty, complementary outfield bat to be added for a while now, even before the Cubs dealt Justin Ruggiano (who otherwise would have served in that role). As constructed, the Cubs’ primary three outfielders right now are Chris Coghlan in left, Arismendy Alcantara in center, and Jorge Soler in right. Denorfia is an important addition not only because he can play all three of those positions, but his righty bat can platoon with Coghlan in left field (if each hits opposite-handed pitching to their career averages, they’d make for a very nice offensive left field). As far as this kind of addition goes, I’m not sure the Cubs could have found a better overall fit when you consider the role, the bounce-back potential, and the modest cost.
The door is not closed on a significant outfield addition by virtue of Denorfia coming on board, but the options there are limited. If the Cubs manage to add a big bat in left field, Denorfia and Coghlan each become reserve outfielders, and very good ones at that. If the Cubs manage to add a big bat (leadoff type?) in center field, it’s possible Coghlan/Denorfia (Coghlorfia?) remain the primary guys in left, and Alcantara slides into a utility role.
Most likely, though, the Cubs are done adding in the outfield. If so, there is a large group of players that will be fighting for a job on the Opening Day roster. Even if we’re generous and say that the Cubs keep just seven in the bullpen to start the year, there will be only five bench jobs available. Among the presently-available players, one of those bench jobs goes to back-up catcher David Ross, and one goes to Tommy La Stella. One now also goes to Denorfia. That leaves just two more spots on the roster, and the only infield backup (La Stella) has really only played second base in his career. Alcantara’s, Luis Valbuena’s, and Javier Baez’s versatility will really help, but the Cubs may still want to carry another infielder on the roster (hence those Stephen Drew rumors). That would leave just one more spot to dole out among all of these outfielders (plus any minor league deal/non-roster invitees the Cubs pick up):
Mike Olt (assuming he can play the corner outfield spots adequately)
The good news is that the Cubs have a ton of options with respect to those players – literally. Each of those four guys has options remaining (by virtue of his big league service, Sweeney has to consent to being optioned to Iowa, but he might give that consent in order to keep the $2 million remaining on his contract). So, if the Cubs want to keep all four players in the organization, even if they don’t make the 25-man roster out of Spring Training, it’s going to be possible to do it. (That may become all the more relevant once the Cubs want to add Kris Bryant to the roster, which could come in late-April/early-May.)
If I were sitting here today, trying to predict who wins that fifth outfielder job, I’d probably say it’s one of Sweeney or Olt, with a slight edge going to Sweeney because of his lefty bat and his ability to play center. It wasn’t a great 2014 for Sweeney, who dealt with a serious hamstring injury and a lot of tough luck at the plate (a .285 BABIP (some 40 points below his career average) despite an enormous 27.4% line drive rate)). With Olt, the question is whether those late-season adjustment last year will actually cut down on his strikeout rate, because it would be nice to have his huge power bat on the roster, especially since he could probably cover 3B/1B/LF/RF in a pinch. If the Cubs are comfortable with their middle infield coverage between Castro/Baez/La Stella/Alcantara, it remains possible that both Sweeney and Olt could be carried.
Lake is having another great winter in the DWL, but I’m not sure he’ll ever cut the Ks enough to be a productive big leaguer, even in a reserve role. Letting him keep working at AAA Iowa isn’t a bad idea. Szczur probably has a nice big league glove at this point, but I’m not sure the bat will ever be there.
All that said, because of the relatively small commitment to Denorfia – just $2.6 million – it’s not as though the Cubs will absolutely have to ditch a player who clearly looks ready to break out (relatively speaking – we’re talking about reserve outfielders here) because of the commitment to Denorfia. I wouldn’t expect the Cubs to bail on Denorfia early in the year, mind you. I’m just saying that the front office will continue to be nimble to ensure the roster is the best it can be. Let’s be honest: April/May wins and losses matter a whole lot more now than they have in the last few years.
And even that said, it’s just so early to be really drilling down into this stuff. We don’t know what other moves the Cubs may have on the horizon this and next month, and we don’t know who’s going to show up to Spring Training with a bum wheel. None of this is designed to tell you what the Cubs will definitely do with the bench. Instead, it’s just a snapshot look at the roster after the Denorfia signing.
The FanGraphs take on the signing, by the way, is what you’d expect: if Denorfia’s 2014 was a fluke, this is a great deal and a great fit. If, however, Denorfia no longer has the ability to hit lefties effectively, well … at least it’s not a huge commitment.
I look forward to seeing how the bench and outfield sort themselves out over the coming months.