When Brett deconstructed the roster back in February, he laid out the 24 players who appear (very) likely to make the team out of Spring Training.
The conversation was much deeper than what you’ll see below – and you can go back and check it out, regardless – but it essentially amounted to this:
- 5 starting pitchers (Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish, Jose Quintana, Tyler Chatwood)
- 7 relievers (Brandon Morrow, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards, Steve Cishek, Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson)
- 12 position players (Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Ben Zobrist, Addison Rusell, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora, Jason Heyward, Ian Happ, Tommy La Stella, Chris Gimenez).
Obviously, there’s some leeway baked in there (for example, Victor Caratini could wrestle the backup catcher job away from Gimenez, even if it’s unlikely), but that’s sort of beside the point.
The more salient matter is that, the way we see it, the Cubs currently have 12 pitchers and 12 position players who appear, more or less, to be locks for Opening Day.
And that leaves one roster spot remaining (assuming Pedro Strop will be healthy and ready for Miami, that is). We are operating on the assumption that the final spot will go to another reliever, as has become custom in a bullpen-heavy world (as well as most of Joe Maddon’s recent rosters).
But perhaps that’s not necessarily the case.
The Chicago Sun-Times, MLB.com, and The Athletic all raise the possibility of the Cubs carrying an extra bench player, in lieu of a pitcher. It is unlikely at this point, but with utility men like Ryan Court and Mike Freeman having huge springs, and with Peter Bourjos the kind of defensively-inclined reserve outfielder teams like to have available, you can see why it’s at least discussed.
Joe Maddon would not dismiss the possibility of going with an extra bench guy instead of an 8th reliever, and he had significant praise for Bourjos, in particular.
“Love him – absolutely love him,” Maddon told Cubs.com. “I’ve had a lot of good conversations with him, and I’ve admired his work from a distance for a while …. I spent a lot of time talking with him in this camp about things I’ve noticed. The conversation is easy, he’s a pro. I see him coming out of his shell – meaning he’s getting more comfortable here. The dialogue is real easy, and I enjoy the way he’s playing.”
It’s not necessarily Bourjos or a reliever or bust, either. Maddon has been impressed with a number of Cubs position players this Spring including Court and Freeman. And there’s always the idea of going with three catchers again, something Maddon has enjoyed at various times over the past 2-3 seasons.
With Victor Caratini’s switch-hitting and positional versatility, he’d actually be a really easy guy to shove on the bench – though, given his status as a developing prospect, you’d probably rather not limit him too much right now. Sure, Caratini might be able to help the Cubs today, but his value to the team tomorrow in other ways might be just as (if not more) important. And that lesson extends beyond just a third catcher.
“For me, it’s always about the eight versus the extra guy on the bench,” Maddon told the Sun-Times. “Who’s going to help you win more? But then, again, it’s also about maybe, possibly losing somebody you don’t want to lose.”
Eddie Butler is an example of a guy who the Cubs would risk losing if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster (he’s out of options). And if, for example, Strop did have to start the season on the disabled list, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Butler get one of the two remaining roster spots – in fact, I’d actually prefer it, given his remaining upside and ability to start. But if it’s down to the last spot, and you’re still deciding between him and a position player (let alone another reliever), the conversation isn’t as easy.
Plus, Butler’s ability to start is neutered a bit by pitching out of the pen. If someone in the rotation were to break down, neither he nor Montgomery would be immediately stretched out. There’s a chance Butler could be converted into a full-time reliever – and with guys like Alec Mills and Jen-Ho Tseng available as one-off starting depth at Triple-A, you don’t hate that – but now we’re really getting into the weeds on his fit with this team.
Clearly, this decision isn’t going to be easy.
If it were up to me, however, this is how I think I’d handle it:
- If Pedro Strop is ready for Opening Day and you want to go with a position player, you go with Victor Caratini. I love the added versatility he brings to the game, as well as to Maddon’s roster planning. Working with three catchers has been a quietly awesome advantage over the past three seasons, and I’m very excited to see more. [Brett: Not to just straight up disagree with you in the middle of your post, Michael, but if going with a position player, I think I’d let Caratini keep starting at Triple-A, and would instead carry Bourjos, who might offer just as much value for Maddon to use in spots. It’s close. I like Caratini. I don’t think I’d hate it either way … IF going with a position player.]
- If Pedro Strop is ready for Opening Day and you want to go with a pitcher, I think you risk losing Eddie Butler, hoping that other roster crunches around the league allow the Cubs to sneak him through waivers, and go with a hot reliever like Randy Rosario (2.45 ERA, .160 avg against in Spring Training). [Brett: If any other reliever is a guy who clearly looks more capable of contributing quality innings, of course you take him. But if Butler is close, you keep him, and the other guys go to the minors, where they can be held onto. Sorry, Michael, I did it again.]
- If Pedro Strop is not ready for Opening Day and you want a position player, I think you can replace Strop with Eddie Butler, and once again add Victor Caratini. [Brett: If Strop isn’t ready, I’d rather see the Cubs going with eight relievers.]
- If Pedro Strop is not ready for Opening Day and you want to add an extra pitcher, I’d go with Butler and Rosario once again. [Brett: Agreed! Well, on it being Butler plus-one, at least. All these notes just confirm what Michael and Maddon have been saying: the decision at the margins here is not easy.]
Basically, despite everything a veteran like Bourjos can bring to the table, I’m not itching to add more of a glut to the outfield, which already figures to be crunched with Ian Happ, Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, and Ben Zobrist clawing for time.
On top of that, the Cubs have plenty of solid outfield defense (Almora, Heyward, Happ) and plenty of veteran clubhouse/leader types (Rizzo, Zobrist, Lester, etc). Plus, the Cubs wouldn’t stand to lose Bourjos if they left in the Minors to open the season, so if a need arises or an opt-out date approaches, you can always add him later on.
Ultimately, though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Strop ready for the season, and the Cubs just stick with one extra reliever. When push comes to shove, that’s the game today and the Cubs have grown accustomed to easing the load on the starters early in the season, helping preserve them for the second half.
What would you do?
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.