It’s been a nice, fun start for Matt Szczur this year, eh?
After being slowed by a side injury, then making the roster only at the end of Spring Training, Szczur has had a chance to impact each of the Cubs’ first two games, and he’s taken advantage. Through five plate appearances, Szczur has already notched a single, a double, and a homer.
Not necessarily for that reason, but instead because of the way he made the roster, folks rightly wonder what will happen with Szczur when Javy Baez is ready to return from the disabled list. Szczur is out of minor league options, and I’ve always maintained that he’ll look like a really attractive waiver wire grab for a rebuilding club like, for one example, the Phillies.
One thing to note: Baez was hit in the ear flap by a pitch in extended Spring Training on Monday (he left the game under his own power), and Arizona Phil says Baez did not appear on the field yesterday in Mesa. Hopefully Baez is fine, and there’s nothing doing here, but his return was less predicated on the health of his thumb (it’s fine) and more on his readiness to face big league pitching (he was hoping to be back by Monday’s home opener). So if that process is slowed at all, it could be even more of a reprieve for Szczur and the Cubs’ need to make a decision.* That said, as the Cubs head back to NL games, Baez’s absence will be more acutely felt, given the typically more ample use of the bench.
Perhaps, then, whenever Baez returns, the Cubs will elect to go back down to seven relievers and keep both of Szczur and Baez, or maybe Tommy La Stella is optioned to Iowa. Or maybe Jorge Soler is. Or maybe Baez is. All of those things seem pretty unlikely, but I suppose we’ll see where things stand next week, if and when Baez is ready to go.As for Szczur, the primary question for his ability to stick in the big leagues as a 4th outfielder (or maybe even a starter) has always been whether he’d ever have enough power to keep pitchers and defenses honest, and improve his overall offensive production. Szczur is a big, strong dude, so he’s more than capable of power, physically. Last year, it looked like he’d made some notable changes to better tap into that power in-game, and, indeed, his ISO did tick up considerably at AAA (.150, up from a meager .051 at AAA the year before, and .081 at AA the year before).
If Szczur improves his power further this year, then suddenly you’ve got an extremely interesting player, especially when you consider his defensive and baserunning value. Let’s not forget: power comes later for most players, and Szczur did not focus full-time on baseball until he was in his early-20s. Now 26, it’s not at all inconceivable that a step forward is coming. It’s just unfortunate that, because of roster limitations, that step might not come with the Cubs.
As I said, there’s not really an answer to any of this right now, because there are related roster questions that won’t be sorted out for a little while yet. Right now, Szczur’s got a spot on the big league club, and if he keeps hitting, he’ll find himself getting more opportunities to stick around.
*This discussion sets aside for the moment the fact that outfielder Shane Victorino is also rehabbing, and, if healthy, could factor into the Cubs’ roster situation, too, at some point in the near future.