Although the Cubs offseason isn’t necessarily over (Michael Conforto is still out there and trades could still be on the horizon), it feels like a good time to press pause and take a closer look at the roster. In particular, I’d like to focus in on the eclectic group of position players to see how exactly things might line up against certain pitchers as of today.
Of course, as you can probably already sense, this group leaves us with a WHOLE lot of questions. I’ll get to many of them. But here’s how I tentatively expect playing time to be doled out (subject to regular rest, unexpected injuries, developmental goals, and certain matchups, of course).
|vs. LHP||vs. RHP||Alts/Backups|
|C||Willson Contreras||Willson Contreras||Yan Gomes|
|1B||Frank Schwindel||Frank Schwindel||Alfonso Rivas|
|2B||Nico Hoerner||Nick Madrigal||Jonathan Villar|
|SS||Andrelton Simmons||Nico Hoerner||Jonathan Villar|
|3B||Patrick Wisdom||Patrick Wisdom||Jonathan Villar|
|LF||Clint Frazier||Ian Happ||Michael Hermosillo|
|CF||Michael Hermosillo||Rafael Ortega||Jason Heyward, Ian Happ|
|RF||Seiya Suzuki||Seiya Suzuki||Jason Heyward|
|DH||Nick Madrigal||Clint Frazier||Willson Contreras|
So let’s address a few things right off the bat. First and foremost, that’s 14 names right there, one more than the Cubs are technically allowed to carry on the Opening Day active roster as of today. However, we do expect MLB to expand rosters to start the season. So while that could mean adding as many more pitchers as possible, I think one additional position player isn’t totally out of the question, and might even be how MLB dictates the roster expansion.
Your most obvious roster casualties in this case are Greg Deichmann and Harold Ramirez. The former has minor league options remaining and hasn’t fully established himself in the upper minors yet, so it’s easy enough to park him at Triple-A until he forces your hand or the Cubs need a replacement. The latter, Ramirez, does not (which hurts especially because of his delay in arriving at camp). So if he doesn’t make the big league roster out of camp, the Cubs could try to sneak him through waivers, but they could lose him in the process. But unless there’s a surprise DFA of Jason Heyward, or a move to start Clint Frazier in Triple-A (he does have an option year remaining), I’m not sure who Ramirez would replace. I am assuming the Cubs do want to keep Michael Hermosillo and Rafael Ortega around.
But this still leaves us with a ton of questions. So let’s roll through the positions and briefly discuss our expectations.
Left Field: Versus left-handed hitters, I won’t be surprised to see Ian Happ and Jason Heyward take a seat much of the time, which could open up left field for Clint Frazier and center field for Michael Hermosillo. Frazier has actually been better against right-handers for his career, but he’s still a righty, and his splits against lefties are stronger than Happ, Heyward, and Ortega. This is all subject to Frazier being back to full health, of course.
Center Field: In center field, against lefties, I really hope the Cubs give Michael Hermosillo a lot of runway (career .245/.356/.408; 111 wRC+ vs. LHP). He’s their best option there.
Right Field: Seiya Suzuki. We’re expecting the new Cubs slugger to be the everyday right fielder.
Catcher: Willson Contreras should be in there against all lefties, aside from days Yan Gomes is taking over.
First Base: Frank Schwindel crushes lefties. Or, at least, he has and we hope he still will.
Second Base: I think Nico Hoerner needs to be in the lineup every time there’s a left-handed pitcher on the mound. But with the same desire for Nick Madrigal, and the hope that Andrelton Simmons draws MOST of his starts against left-handed pitchers (he’s brutal against righties), then second base is the most obvious spot for Hoerner. Other: Jonathan Villar.
Shortstop: Andrelton Simmons had a 44 wRC+ against righties last year. So if he’s not starting against most righties, he’s likely going to be in there against most lefties, against whom he’s a little better, but still not very good. Not that he’s here for his bat in any case. Other: Jonathan Villar.
Third Base: With solid defense and enough upside to at least investigate, Patrick Wisdom should get his shot this season, especially at third base against lefties. Though you can also conceivably stick him at DH sometimes. Other: Jonathan Villar.
Designated Hitter: I think the Cubs will try to keep Nick Madrigal’s bat in the lineup as often as possible, so on days when Andrelton Simmons and Nico Hoerner are both in the lineup, DH might be the only option.
Exceptions/Notes: Obviously, Yan Gomes might sub in behind the plate, which could move Willson Contreras to the bench or to DH, but that’s easy enough to envision. The difficult part here is Jonathan Villar, a switch-hitter who is basically split-neutral. I suspect he’ll filter in across the infield against lefties, from third base, to shortstop, to second base. So maybe he’s not quite a “starter” at any of those spots, but he might get close to a starter’s share of games, when all is said and done.
Left Field: Ian Happ deserves the majority of starts in left field against right-handed pitchers. There are other options, but the Cubs would be wise to see which version of Happ shows up as soon as possible. He is currently still recovering from elbow surgery, but he’s expected to be ready by Opening Day.
Center Field: Here’s our first tough conversation. If it were up to me (and I suspect a lot of you), Rafael Ortega would draw most of the starts in center field against most right-handed pitchers, at least until he shows he’s not gonna keep raking against them like he did last year. But as long as Jason Heyward is on the roster and Seiya Suzuki is starting in right field, I think David Ross is going to give some of these starts to Heyward. It just seems like the wrong decision, but it’s probably going to happen.
Right Field: Seiya Suzuki. Will Suzuki sit against some tough righties? Sure, maybe, but I think they’re just going to give him a full leash to start the year.
Catcher: Willson Contreras should be in there against most righties, too, aside from days Yan Gomes is taking over. Gomes will probably push Contreras out from behind the plate more than we’re used to seeing, but Gomes is not very good against righties. So maybe we’ll see him more against lefties, as the schedule allows.
First Base: If Alfonso Rivas is on the roster, I will not be at all surprised to see him take some starts against righties away from Frank Schwindel. BUT … I still think first base is mostly Schwindel’s gig for at least a couple months’ worth of runway.
Second Base: If Andrelton Simmons is not starting against all righties, someone will need to play shortstop, and that someone is probably either Nico Hoerner or Jonathan Villar. And if it’s the former – as I hope it will be – that’ll open up second base for Madrigal. I don’t actually think Hoerner will grab as many starts at short against righties as we may want, but this is how I’d set it up, at least to start the year.
Shortstop: This is basically an extension of the conversation above. On a normal day, against a normal or better righty, we may not always see Simmons (maybe starting 50% of the time against normal or tougher righties?). That means Hoerner or Villar at short on those days. There really aren’t any other options.
Third Base: This is kind of like first base/Frank Schwindel. I think the third base job is mostly there for Patrick Wisdom to take and run with, but we’ll certainly see Jonathan Villar regularly, and especially against tough righties who live with their fastballs up in the zone.
Designated Hitter: Clint Frazier, maybe? Willson Contreras, when Gomes is starting? Nick Madrigal if Nico Hoerner is at second? Patrick Wisdom if Jonathan Villar is at third? It’s probably going to be a daily mix-and-match with no obvious everyday DH. That’s a fine approach with this group.
Miscellaneous Notes: I really hope the Cubs give some runway to Rafael Ortega (center) and Nico Hoerner (shortstop) against right-handed pitching, but I think we’re going to see Jason Heyward and Simmons/Villar a lot. Probably more than I suggested above. Additionally, I feel like I might be overestimating Clint Frazier’s immediate timeshare, but I really want to see what he’s got in the tank. Frazier, 27, is a former top prospect, who dominated in 2020 (149 wRC+) and has been an above average hitter for most of his career. If the health/mental health issues that disrupted him last year are in the past, you’ll really want to see what he’s got.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.