The Cubs started the return of injured position players this week on two fronts, with Anthony Rizzo sliding back into the lineup, and with Jason Heyward and Jake Marisnick starting rehab assignments at Triple-A Iowa as they finalize their hamstring rehabs. Nico Hoerner (hamstring), David Bote (shoulder), and Matt Duffy (back) are still wholly out, though, with timelines on their returns still fuzzy.
Naturally, you start to wonder: what’s gonna happen with all these guys and the fill-in guys over the coming weeks?
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Heyward and Marisnick catching a flight to San Francisco today or tomorrow, which means the Cubs will have to do some roster maneuvering soon with the depth guys who’ve been filling in. With two outfielders coming back, your best guess is that Heyward and Marisnick will simply replace two other outfielders on the roster, likely Nick Martini (optionable to Iowa) and Rafael Ortega (cannot be optioned, so it would have to be a DFA, and then you see if he gets claimed on waivers or can be outrighted to Iowa).
If I had to guess, Patrick Wisdom (who has options) might stick around until Matt Duffy returns, and Sergio Alcantara might stick around until one or both of Nico Hoerner and David Bote come back. Even after that, it’s possible the Cubs could elect to just keep Wisdom or Alcantara around over Eric Sogard, who would at that point have to be DFA’d (and the Cubs would have to make another spot available, too, but we’re talking far enough down the line that who knows if someone else will have been injured by then, or the Cubs might go back to 13 pitchers at that point).
You already know about the early love Wisdom is earning, though his inability to play the middle infield positions make him less versatile for this roster than, for example, Alcantara. The 24-year-old switch-hitter got the start at third base last night and notched another hit, with praise from David Ross in advance of the start (NBCSC): “[Alcantara has] swung the bat really well from both sides. [Triple-A Iowa manager] Marty Pevey told me he was having some of their best at-bats, especially from the left side. I feel really comfortable putting him in there.”
I know what you’re wondering, though. When all this shakes out, and if the Cubs do decide not to keep Alcantara on the big league roster, are they really going to risk losing Alcantara, a 24-year-old legit prospect, for nothing? You know, since he’s out of options and everything? BUT WAIT I HAVE GOOD NEWS!
Last week, in anticipation of these injured players eventually coming back, I was wondering something about Alcantara’s options situation. We knew that after 2020, he’d used three of three minor league options years, and that’s part of why he was squeezed out in Detroit despite his excellent glove, youth, and (apparent) upside. But then I thought about that whole business with Adbert Alzolay getting a fourth option year – via an arbitration decision about the special circumstances of the pandemic season – and it was worth asking whether Alcantara also got the extra option year, since he was also a guy who was up and down in the 2020 season.
WELL, according to Arizona Phil, Alcantara DID qualify for that special fourth option year in 2021. Phil is basically always right on this stuff, so I anticipate that he’s correct here, and now the Cubs can option Alcantara up and down (this year only) as necessary. In other words, if he is among the guys they decide to send out when the full group returns, the Cubs do not have to put him on waivers and risk losing him for nothing. I presume the Cubs knew this, which better explains them bringing him up and not necessarily behaving like a team that absolutely needs to know what they have in him immediately.
That extra option year will afford the Cubs a little more latitude in balancing short-term needs and long-term organizational wants. Specifically, it will allow the Cubs to keep Alcantara on the 40-man roster through the offseason if they decide he does, indeed, have some long-term upside as a future big leaguer. Sure, the Cubs will then be in a situation where he either makes the 26-man roster out of Spring Training or hits waivers, but cross that bridge when it comes. Much better to come next spring than this summer.
I still think the Cubs might wind up wanting to keep Alcantara up on the big league roster for a while in any case – the glove is great and versatile, the bat is emerging – but it’s hard to predict what you’ll want to do when the roster rubber meets the road.
(If you were asking me today for best guesses, though – assuming no new injuries in the interim – I’d probably say that we see Heyward and Marisnick come back this weekend, with Martini optioned to Iowa and Ortega DFA’d. If Duffy is the next guy back, say, a week or two after that, the Cubs will probably option Wisdom back to Iowa or will drop down to 13 pitchers. If instead Hoerner comes back first, the will probably either option Alcantara to Iowa, or will DFA Sogard. Then when Bote comes back, whichever of Alcantara or Sogard survived the first move probably gets bounced unless the Cubs are ready to then drop back down to 13 pitchers. The catch there is that you’d then have zero lefty infield bats on the roster available when you wanted to max out a lineup with lefties. So maybe you assume the Cubs do drop down to 13 pitchers at that time so they can hang onto an extra lefty bat … but the bullpen is already overcrowded with big league talent! You can see how this quickly becomes kind of futile to project weeks into the future.)