Whether or not this turns out to be the year, it is certain that this is a year in which the Cubs intend to contend. The major league season is long one, though, and a lot of things can go wrong on the way to a Wild Card berth or division title. Injuries and unexpected ineffectiveness-es happen, and, when they do, it sometime pays to promote from within the farm system. Minor league systems primarily exist to develop future major league talent, but they also serve as an extended bench for the major league team; if something goes wrong at the highest level, teams that hope to contend need to be able to look to their farm for solutions.
While it is still a little early in the spring to know for sure who will report to Iowa – the situation of some of the ‘minor league contract with a major league invite’ players can be particularly hard to read – we know enough to know who we should be watching as spring training unfolds.
And the good news is that the news is good. The Cubs should have a fair bit of depth stashed away on their (very) extended bench when the season opens.
Headlining the roster of reinforcements is, of course, Kris Bryant. Very few teams in baseball will open the season with potentially major lineup force like Bryant waiting in the wings. Typically acquiring a bat like this would take a trade; for the Cubs it will take a phone call. He may split time in between third base and left field, and, in all likelihood, even he will struggle from time to time. But the arrival of Bryant is all but certain to be one of the biggest stories of the season, and one of the best additions to the roster all year. He should also be a lot of fun to watch, and he’s something of an outlier in this piece, given that we know he’s coming at some point to be an everyday starter no matter what.
Rafael Lopez could be the most likely catcher to be called up should the Cubs need another one for any reason since he’s already on the 40-man roster, but don’t forget about Taylor Teagarden. Lopez, whom we saw for a few innings in the majors last season, is a quality defensive catcher with a bat more notable for patience than power (as in he has a lot of patience, and not much power at all). Teagarden was brought into camp as a non-roster invitee, and, assuming that he heads to Iowa after spring training is over, could be a candidate to come to Wrigley in a pinch. Teagarden is a light hitting journeyman who has bounced a round a bit in his career. His offensive numbers are nothing to get excited about, but he has posted sufficiently healthy defensive stats (paired with great scouting reports), and I’m interested in seeing just how good he is behind the plate. Given that Lopez is already on the 40-man, though, it would take a particular series of events to move Teagarden into Wrigley this season.
Christian Villanueva, a familiar face from prospect lists, should be the Heir to Bryant at third base in Iowa and, due to his 40-man roster spot, is a logical guy be called up should the Cubs lose an infielder. Villanueva would be an option at any base on the infield (although his glove does fit best at third), but probably isn’t a candidate to be more than an emergency fill-in at short. Jonathan Herrera, a switch hitting middle infielder who put up some very decent numbers in a reserve role for the Rockies, is another non-roster name to watch. He will be fighting an uphill battle to make the 40-man roster, but his experience could be useful on a very young team.
Chris Valaika and Addison Russell also received non-roster invitations to spring training. Valaika is more or less a known quantity for Cubs fans now, and he’ll be available to fill his multi-faceted reserve role when and if the Cubs require it. Russell, I think, will make the majors before the end of the season, but, when he comes up, it will likely be as a regular starter at either second or third*, not as a reserve guy. He likely won’t be ready until August, though.
*Russell is more than good enough defensively to take a major league shortstop job right now, but for various reasons I don’t think the Cubs would move Castro off the position just to accommodate Russell. But that’s another article.
This is also the spot where I would normally talk about left-handed utility guy Logan Watkins. He is, unfortunately, going to miss most if not all of the season with an achilles tear.
On the outfield, the guess here is that Junior Lake and Matt Szczur are sent back to Iowa and will be ready and waiting should the Cubs need assistance. Szczur is an excellent defender who needs to show more power with his bat if he is going to carve out a major league starting job, and Lake is an ultra-toolsy, super-frustrating, enigmatic mountain of potential that looks like The Next Big Thing when he isn’t striking out at elevated rates. If Lake can leverage his apparent new emphasis on getting on base (instead of swinging primarily for power) into a more productive overall slash line, his eventual return to Wrigley could be as a real asset.
It is in the pitching department that the potential depth in Iowa is the hardest to gauge, at least right now. I’m fairly confident that Eric Jokisch and Dallas Beeler (if healthy) will return to Iowa as starters and are the likely candidates in the event of a double header or injury, but it is a little hard to say who will join them. Jacob Turner and Tsuyoshi Wada are likely to stop for awhile on rehab assignments, but I tend to doubt that either will finish the season there.
Felix Doubront? Daniel Bard? Donn Roach? Armando Rivero? It all depends on who makes the Opening Day roster and who makes it to Iowa. Some or all of them could be waiting in the wings in Iowa, part of the bullpen in Chicago, or part of another organization altogether. The final slots in the bullpen and rotation are still fairly fluid and the fallout of those decisions is a little unpredictable.
The upshot, though, is that the Cubs are going to have some pitching depth in Iowa.
And on the infield. And in the outfield.
And with more depth still coming. Late in the season we could be talking about Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber, C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson, Corey Black, Dan Vogelbach, and more as being available as late season reinforcements should the need arise.
These Cubs are young, talented, and have plenty of reinforcements waiting in the wings. It should be a fun season.