According to the Chicago Tribune, presumed fourth outfielder Chris Denorfia is dealing with a hamstring issue that has kept him out of Spring Training action since March 17. Although he’s performing agility drills right now, he might not be able to play again in the Cactus League, which would leave the Cubs heading down to the wire to make a roster decision.
To the extent Denorfia needs to miss time to start the season – even mild hamstring injuries can cost players upwards of a month to prevent reoccurrence – the door will be wide open for one of Ryan Sweeney, Matt Szczur, and Junior Lake to grab a roster spot on Opening Day. The bench is still up in the air, so there’s actually potentially a spot for one of those three even if Denorfia is healthy (especially if Welington Castillo is dealt by then), but, if Denorfia’s out, the Cubs will absolutely have to have at least one of those players available.
The skinny on each:
Sweeney, as discussed in relation to the Cubs’ most recent game, hasn’t had a great Spring, and had a down 2014 after a surprisingly excellent 2013. There are reasons to believe his 2014 numbers were depressed by a few too many balls that failed to find grass through no fault of his own, and Sweeney can play all over the outfield. He’s under contract for 2015 for $1.5 million, and the club holds an option on him for 2016. Because of his service time, Sweeney cannot be optioned to the minors without his consent AND without clearing waivers. It’s possible he would consent, but it’s also possible he’d prefer free agency or that another team would claim him if he were waived.
Szczur is having a great Spring, though it comes on the heels of a disappointing transition to AAA last year. He does play exceptional outfield defense, and bats from the right side (which might make him the most attractive replacement for Denorfia). Szczur has options left and is working on a new swing/plate approach, so it’s possible that the preference will be for him to see regular action at AAA, rather than spotty work in the bigs.
Lake is also having a solid Spring (at least in terms of plate discipline), and is clearly evolving his game from power/speed to discipline/speed. He still has plenty of swing and miss in his game, but it looks like he’s seeing pitches much better this year (which supports the offseason theory about his dramatically increased walk rate). Lake, who also bats righty, can play all over the outfield, in theory, though I’m not as certain that he’s as good in center or right as he is in left (I just haven’t seen him enough there since mid-2014). Lake, like Szczur, has a minor league option remaining.
All in all, my best guess is that Szczur is first in line to replace Denorfia if he goes to the DL, and the Cubs will make a decision on Sweeney independent of all of this (i.e., he either makes the team or he doesn’t, regardless of Denorfia’s health). I’d surmise that Lake is the most likely to head to AAA Iowa because he’s got the highest long-term upside (even if it is unlikely at this point that he reaches it), but probably offers the least immediate value to the big league team. That said, none of the three being with the big league team would surprise me.