There was a time earlier this season when Matt Szczur was one of the best/most fun stories coming from the 2016 Chicago Cubs.
And that’s saying a lot.
As the Cubs were exiting Spring Training and the final 25-man roster was being set, Szczur appeared to be the odd man out. But because Javy Baez began the season out on the disabled list, Szczur got his shot and made the most of it.
He played very well in limited duty throughout the month of April, but then on May 2, he left the game after a dash to the plate spurred an uncomfortable/painful feeling in his right hamstring. Unfortunately, an MRI revealed a mild hamstring strain and that forced Szczur to the 15-day disabled list on May 3 and he hasn’t returned yet.
But there is good news! Per Cubs.com, Szczur will begin a rehab assignment on Thursday with the Tennessee Smokies (Cubs Double-A affiliate – don’t read anything into the level, because it could just be about the weather). According to Joe Maddon, there’s no specific timetable on Szczur’s return, as this will be more of a “just go play,” and we’ll see how you’re feeling/doing kind-of-thing.
For his part, Maddon doesn’t anticipate a long rehab assignment for Szczur, but it is fair to wonder about what will happen when he is ready to return. As of now, the most likely candidate he can replace on the 25-man roster is third string catcher Tim Federowicz, and although that may seem like a no-brainer on the surface, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that.
First and foremost, Tim Federowicz is out of options and also has been outrighted before in his career, which means he cannot be freely sent to and from the Cubs’ minor league teams. If the Cubs hope to keep him in the organization, but not on the 25-man roster, he’ll have to pass through waivers (probable, but not a guarantee) and then accept an assignment to the minor leagues (which is not a guarantee), instead of electing free agency. Given David Ross’ age, Miguel Montero’s recent back injury, and Willson Contreras’s inexperience, the Cubs will likely be reluctant to risk losing Federowicz.
But that’s not the only issue here.
The other problem is that Szczur, himself, is out of options. So if the Cubs hope to keep him in the organization, but not on the 25-man roster, he’ll have to pass through waivers before being sent to the minor leagues (having not previously been outrighted in his career, he wouldn’t have the choice to elect free agency at that point). But even though Szczur can’t elect free agency like Federowicz can, that doesn’t mean he’ll be easier to keep around. Szczur is far more likely to be claimed on waivers (26-year-old speedy outfielder with good defense at all three spots, who’s been hitting well, and seems to be breaking out in the power department) by any one of a number of rebuilding team.
So unless something works itself out before Szczur’s rehab stint comes to an end, the Cubs will have to make a tough decision on one of these two guys or some other roster maneuver. Odds are, it would be Federowicz, and if so, there’s a chance the Cubs would lose him.
Just as a reminder, to start the year, Matt Szczur slashed .367/.441/.600 in 34 plate appearances, while keeping identical 11.8% walk/strikeout rates. He was worth 0.5 WAR(!) in that short stretch, and was a great outfield defensive replacement late in ballgames. These things tend to find a way to work themselves out, but there may be a time where the Cubs are forced to make a difficult decision.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.