We’re now only a little over a week away from Opening Day, and even after a compressed/late offseason, and even with an overly crowded camp roster, it’s time for the various roster battles to start coming into clearer focus. It’s still almost impossible to make full predictions, but the earth slows for no man. Opening Day is coming, and there are decisions to be made, ideal timeline be damned.
One area to which we’ve devoted a lot of attention is the outfield, partly because it’s important, yes, but also partly because it’s one of the few areas where the roster discussion is pretty clear: there are six guys for five spots. It makes having the discussion, even early discussion, much easier.
To that end, we know that Seiya Suzuki and Ian Happ are, of course, unholy locks for the outfield mix, drawing most of the starts at the corner spots, with Happ potentially working into center field on occasion. The other four guys – Jason Heyward, Michael Hermosillo, Rafael Ortega, and Clint Frazier – each come with arguments in favor of making the team and in favor of being the guy left out:
⇒ Heyward is the veteran leader who has a couple big money years left on his deal, and might be the best lefty-batting center field option (but he fell way off last year, he can’t hit lefties, and his contract should not be a reason to keep him around at this point).
⇒ Hermosillo has the upside of a former quality prospect who hasn’t had a real shot yet, raked at Iowa, and can play good defense all over (but we don’t yet know if he can hit righties, or if his smaller sample success last year in the minors will actually translate in a part-time role in the bigs).
⇒ Ortega might be the best bat in the group against righties, which is pretty important (but his defense in center is only so-so, he can’t hit lefties, and there was probably a lot of good luck baked into last year’s results).
⇒ Frazier has the highest offensive upside of the group and has succeeded before in the big leagues (but he’s the only one with a minor league option left, he has serious health considerations that could make reaching his upside unlikely, and the defense – even in a corner – is an open question).
As you can see, it’s not necessarily a crystal clear decision. At this point, I would probably let Heyward go if the only other choice was losing someone like Hermosillo or Ortega entirely, and I’m not so sure I want to see Frazier optioned to Iowa if he’s healthy. But I can understand if other folks would make a different argument. (The Cubs, it sure seems like, are making a different argument, as Heyward has taken every start in center field this spring when Suzuki plays in right. Since Suzuki is new to the team, you’d want him playing as much as possible next to the guy he’ll actually be playing next to most in the regular season. So, yeah. Cubs seem to have made up their mind.)
It’s a tricky spot, and if nothing organically changes over the next week, and if the Cubs are set on carrying 15 pitchers (and only 5 outfielders), the Cubs will have to make a tough decision.
OR WILL THEY?!
Hey, I finally got to the headline.
As you may recall, new shortstop Andrelton Simmons has been dealing with a sore throwing shoulder. Although he’s been able to DH, Simmons has yet to debut in the field. We hadn’t yet been given an indication that this could be an Injured List situation for him, but David Ross’s most recent comments sure make it sound like a possibility.
Calling Opening Day an “artificial deadline” for a player to be ready to go, Ross underscored that are “six months” of baseball to play (Cubs.com). “If he’s ready, we’ll go, you know? He’ll tell us where he’s at,” Ross said. “He knows himself. He’s been doing this a long time. We’ll communicate. But definitely, he knows that I want to err on the side of caution with how this spring has ramped up for everybody.”
That sounds to me like starting the season slowly for Simmons – as in, opening on the Injured List – is a real possibility.
While you don’t want the guy you brought in to be the top glove at short going on the IL right away, it certainly could have the side benefit of giving the Cubs even more time to sort out the outfield situation. For all we know, someone in the outfield is going to get hurt in game four, and then you’re sure as heck going to wish you’d been able to hang onto all six outfielders. Punting a decision that could lead to you losing a player from your organization is always a good thing if you can buy yourself some time.
Moreover, the Cubs’ versatile group of infielders means that shortstop is still doubly covered even if Simmons misses time. Nico Hoerner would obviously be the primary shortstop in that case, but Jonathan Villar can also play shortstop, if necessary. Neither will have the glove of Simmons – that’s why the Cubs signed him – but if your calculus is that you want to ensure Simmons is healthy *AND* you want to retain as many players in the organization as possible, well, then yeah you’d be more than fine with Hoerner and Villar holding down shortstop for a week or two and re-assessing from there.
As things stand at this moment, I’d definitely keep an eye on Simmons’ shoulder and availability to play by next week. I’ve gotta think that if it’s at all close, the Cubs will take the opportunity to use the IL, and delay any kind of more permanent outfield decision as long as possible.