The Chicago Cubs won’t full commit to their National League Division Series roster until next week, and, indeed, might not even do so until after they know precisely which Wild Card contender they’ll be facing.
But, the early expectation from manager Joe Maddon is that the Cubs will be going with 14 position players and 11 pitchers (Cubs.com), which has become fairly typical around baseball for this postseason era (with four starters going, and days off sprinkled throughout, it’s rare that you’d need more than seven relievers).
But which players and pitchers will those groups include?
Well, it’s a matter of some continued debate at the margins, but we can set it up by looking at a few buckets.
Assuming health, the following position players and pitchers are mortal locks for the 25-man NLDS roster (in no particular order, other than me visualizing the roster around the horn, on the bench, in the rotation, and in the bullpen):
Carl Edwards Jr.
That’s 17 players about whom there should be absolutely no debate or question, assuming all are healthy.
Then there is a group of players who, again, in only my opinion, should be viewed as having secured a spot on the NLDS roster, despite plausible debate:
Jorge Soler (if healthy)
Chris Coghlan (if healthy)
Since there was previously some debate about Montero, I include him here, but you could really have him in that top group at this point. Ditto Coghlan. There’s just no real question at this point, I think. Soler’s game-changing offensive ability makes him an obvious guy for the roster, but I include him in this group only because he could be sufficiently dinged up to not be effective. We simply don’t know how he’s going to be next week (side injury). Coghlan’s recent ankle injury also raises a question.
Grimm has had a couple blips, but has mostly been sufficiently fantastic in the second half that I trust that he is who he is, and that’s a guy the Cubs should have in the postseason bullpen. Wood, when used as a LOOGY this year, has been fantastic.
If the Cubs go with just seven relievers, then, there’s only one spot left for guys like Mike Montgomery, Trevor Cahill, Joe Smith, Felix Pena, Rob Zastryzny, and Jason Hammel. I could make an argument for each, but, in the end, given the other six in the pen, I’d want to see a guy able to go three or more innings if absolutely necessary, but who also adds value in a short-inning role. Again, I could argue for a few of those guys, but, since all of the starting pitchers are righties, I’d want a lefty in that role (sorry, Trevor Cahill and Jason Hammel). So that would leave Montgomery and Zastryzny, which is a dang hard call in my view, but I’d probably go with Montgomery, given that he has just a bit more experience, particularly going multiple innings with the Cubs.
These are close, close calls when you have this much talent.
On the positional side, then, there are two more spots to be dolled out, realistically, among Tommy La Stella, Albert Almora Jr., and Matt Szczur.
I’ve seen a lot of folks busting on Szczur for a rough month and a half (.118/.182/.137 since mid-August), but we’re talking about just 55 plate appearances, in which his walk and strikeout rates have been fine, but he’s dealing with a .154 BABIP. There is a very real chance this is just a small sample fluke. On the other hand, it’s not like his season stats on the whole are strong anymore (.260/.314/.401, 89 wRC+), nor is that sample enormous (192 PAs). That is to say, I’m not sure we can make a decision to include or exclude Szczur solely on his offensive ability.
Ditto Almora, who has better offensive numbers on the year (.290/.309/.477, 106 wRC+), but a much smaller sample (110 PAs). And ditto ditto for La Stella (.273/.365/.417, 111 wRC+, 160 PAs).
So, how do you decide? Well, I’d probably look at the unique skills each provides, and then think about how useful that could be in an off-the-bench role in a given playoff game. La Stella is the guy when you need contact from the left side (though neither of Almora nor Szczur strike out at an above-average rate, either). Almora is the guy when you want to make that outfield defense elite for the later innings. And Szczur is the baserunning guy with some right-handed power and decent defense (though he has just two stolen bases on the year, and the power hasn’t been there nearly as much in the second half).
That’s a tough call. It’s all so close. Given that two of the bench bats will already be lefties in Coghlan and Montero, I might be inclined to keep Almora and Szczur, but that would leave just one back-up infielder on the roster. For that reason, I probably decide to keep La Stella, and then flip a coin between Almora and Szczur, with the slight edge to Almora because that defense is so very impact. If the Cubs go the other way, I can’t blame ’em. Or maybe Soler or Coghlan doesn’t quite get back to 100% in time for the NLDS, and all three make it.
We’ve been saying it for months now: talented players will be left off the postseason roster. It’s not necessarily a reflection of the players as much a reflection of the extreme depth of the Cubs’ roster.