[UPDATE: Everything below still stands, but one of the moves has been made – Coghlan is back, La Stella is optioned.]
Each passing day, we’re getting closer and closer to a significant roster reckoning. As we’ve discussed for weeks, thanks to the additions in the bullpen and on the bench while the Cubs dealt with some injuries, there was going to be a point where the Cubs were going to have to make some very hard choices. They were able to stave off the hardest of the choices, even through the additions of Aroldis Chapman, Mike Montgomery, and Joe Nathan in the bullpen, but the imminent returns of outfielders Jorge Soler and Chris Coghlan figure to feature only difficult choices, unless an injury or two pop up in the interim.
Soler (hamstring) and Coghlan (rib cage) are on rehab assignments at AA Tennessee, demonstrating and testing their health, and also getting their timing back down at the plate. Coghlan, who has been out since the first week of July, has stupid good numbers in his five games at Tennessee, but that matters much less than the health and readiness questions. Soler, who has been out a month longer, has stupid ugly numbers in his games at Tennessee (and previously at Iowa), but again, that doesn’t really concern me. You just want to see the timing and readiness, and, of course, complete health.
Soon, those guys are going to be ready to come back to the big league roster, at which point the Cubs will have tough choices to make, given that there are no obvious players on the current roster whom you’d want to bump. Worse, guys you might consider moving off the 25-man roster – Matt Szczur, for one prominent example, given that he’s an outfielder – don’t have minor league options available.
And you don’t necessarily want to bump either of Soler or Coghlan, either. Soler had really been turning things on before his injury, and there’s no question he’s a big league player when he’s performing to his abilities – plus, there’s so much upside. Coghlan had a brutal start to the year with Oakland, but looked good with the Cubs (until the rib cage started bothering him) after they acquired him (in part to cover the Soler injury). And, of course, he wrecked righties in 2014 and 2015 for the Cubs, which is something they could arguably use quite a bit in left field.
So, then, what do the Cubs do?
This takes place against the backdrop of two other complicating factors: the looming Trade Deadline, and the eventual return of Trevor Cahill. The latter can be explained away for now, but the former really does complicate things.
On the Cahill part first: it’s not easy to see a spot for him in the current bullpen. It’s crazy to think that given the state of the bullpen when he went on the disabled list at the All-Star break, but it’s true. Thanks to the above-mentioned additions, as well as the breakout of Carl Edwards Jr. and the return of Justin Grimm being Justin Grimm, the Cubs don’t really have an obvious hole in the bullpen to be filled by Cahill. And I like Cahill. For now, we can pass this one off on the future, though, since his rehab stint (for patellar tendinitis in his right knee) can last until mid-August before the Cubs would have to make a decision on him.
On the Trade Deadline part: it actually cuts a couple ways. I tend to think the Cubs might be best served waiting to make these difficult internal roster decisions until after they know for sure no external moves are going to be made that might otherwise provide clarity. It’s possible someone or someone(s) on the roster are traded (or Soler or Coghlan), thus making all of this difficulty go away. It’s also possible, however, that the Cubs go out and add someone like Josh Reddick, on exacerbating the tough choices ahead.
As is usually the case in situations like this, I’ll mostly beg off of telling you exactly what I think will happen in the coming days. I think the existence of the Trade Deadline makes it a little too difficult to speculate on the roster moves the Cubs will make for these outfielders, because there could be more significant roster changes that totally upend anything I might surmise.
The rough version (absent a new injury or trade), though, is that the Cubs will have to choose at least two of the following: going down to seven relievers by optioning a good reliever (Justin Grimm? Carl Edwards Jr?) to Iowa until rosters expand in September, removing Matt Szczur from the 40-man roster and being forced to trade him or subject him to waivers (where he’d almost certainly be claimed by a rebuilding team), optioning someone like Willson Contreras or Tommy La Stella (or Soler) to Iowa until rosters expand in September, and/or cutting/trading Coghlan or Soler.
There isn’t an easy choice in there, and the Cubs have to make two of them.