Is the Final Spot on the Bench Down to Matt Szczur, Tommy La Stella, and Munenori Kawasaki?

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Is the Final Spot on the Bench Down to Matt Szczur, Tommy La Stella, and Munenori Kawasaki?

Analysis and Commentary, Chicago Cubs News

munenori kawasaki

Earlier today, we discussed the 25-man roster crunch as it relates to Shane Victorino and the outfield.

But now, I’d like to turn your attention back to the infield, as it relates to Munenori Kawasaki.

Believe me when I tell you that no one is pulling for Kawasaki to make this Cubs team more than I am. He is a funny, likable human, that could provide the Cubs with that extra bit of excitement many successful team seems to have spades (including, say, the 2015 Chicago Cubs).

But maybe that’s completely unfair.

After all, Kawasaki certainly does not consider himself a mascot, and I’m positive that he has far more to offer than just some good times. But, does he have a legitimate shot at making this team out of Spring Training?

Well, as a matter of fact, yes, but it’s not entirely within his control.

With Shane Victorino out of the running, and the Cubs likely going with an eight-man pen, there is but one spot available on the Cubs bench (outside of David Ross, Javier Baez, and Jorge Soler), with at least three options in the running. As it stands, the most likely players to fill that vacancy are Matt Szczur, Tommy La Stella and Kawasaki. The problem is that each player comes with a unique set of circumstances, muddying up this decision.

First, let’s start with Matt Szczur. As you may or may not know, Szczur is currently out of options as he heads into the regular season. So, if he fails to make the Cubs’ 25-man roster out of the gate (and the Cubs hope to keep him in AAA Iowa), he will be placed on waivers and each team will first have a chance to select and keep Szczur, if they are willing to put him on their own 25-man roster. And while it isn’t a lock to occur, it does feel quite likely, as Szczur can be a useful Major Leaguer, and there are so many rebuilding teams.

Unfortunately, Szczur has also been dealing with an oblique injury, which kept him off the field for most of Spring Training, and made his future with the Cubs far less certain.

Moreover, the need for his particular skill-set has changed dramatically over the past month and half. Consider that, before Dexter Fowler re-signed with the Cubs, Szczur had a very clear path to the majors as the team’s primary backup in center field. But now, that need isn’t as pressing, especially with Javy Baez showing some ability there, and another infielder might make more sense for the Cubs. Perhaps one with a more polished big league bat that hits from the left side of the plate.

Which brings us to Tommy La Stella, or option number two. La Stella is one of eight infielders still on the Cubs’ spring camp roster, and he, too, has an uncertain immediate future. After being slowed by a strained right calf, La Stella has been rehabbing this Spring. However, he has ramped it up of late, appearing in several minor league spring games this week.

“It’s just making sure I’m completely symptom-free, especially in games that don’t mean anything,” La Stella said, via Carrie Muskat at, “so we make sure that come [regular-season] time, we’re good to go.”

La Stella certainly sounds confident that he’ll make the team, and to be perfectly honest, he’s probably the best overall fit. But there is more to his story. Unlike Szczur, La Stella still has minor league options remaining. That means that he can be sent up and down between AAA Iowa as many times as needed this season, without risk of losing him to another team. And, while you certainly want your best players on the big league team in a year the projects to be quite competitive, the Cubs could buy themselves some time (and La Stella some added time to heal) by starting La Stella out in Iowa at the beginning of the season – especially when his potential infield replacement is no slouch himself.

And, of course, that replacement would most likely come in the form of Munenori Kawasaki (only 700 words in and we’re finally talking about him! Who needs brevity?). Kawasaki, 34, has made a perfectly fine – if not mediocre – career as a back-up infielder in the U.S. since coming to the Mariners from Japan back in 2012. However, he’s had an absolutely fantastic spring, slashing .375/.487/.500 while playing impressive defense at shortstop and second base (and when I saw him in person, he appeared to be quite quick around the bases, as well).

But more importantly, he’s impressed the man that matters, manager Joe Maddon. Here’s what the Cubs skipper had to say on Kawasaki, via Carrie Muskat of “He’s a good baseball player. He’s a great fit. He’s a great fit on any team, because he’s a real fundamental baseball player. What you’re seeing now is not flukish. I saw it in Toronto. I did not want to see him in a game, based on his abilities and his energy. He works a good at-bat, can bunt. He’s been almost flawless on defense, he runs well.”

Okay, that is some serious, well deserved praise, but despite the compliment, it doesn’t sound like Kawasaki is first in line to make the team. Maddon explained to Muskat that it would “more than likely” require an “injury situation” for Kawasaki to make the team. He went on to explain that he’d be happy to have Kawasaki on the team, and if it came to that, he and everyone else would be more thrilled by what he adds, but it just doesn’t seem to be plan A right now. Kawasaki originally signed a minor league deal, with the Cubs, so he, too, can head to AAA Iowa to serve as depth in the event of an emergency at the Major League level.

When all is said and done, it’s possible that all three of the players above play for the Cubs at some point in 2016, even if just one of them breaks camp with the big league team. While it may be unsettling for each player to have uncertainty about the future, we can rest assured that the Cubs have plenty of quality options for the final seat on the bench.


Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami is a Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @Michael_Cerami.