One shorthand we’ve been using often around here for the past couple months are defining certain players as “bubble” guys as it relates to the pending 40-man roster crunch. This term is meant to suggest that a player exists in the gray area, requiring Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins to make a decision about their future this offseason (I wrote about the schedule for those decisions last month). Remember, this crunch exists because the Cubs will have to protect a number of minor leaguers from the Rule 5 Draft (more on that part, specifically, in posts to come).
I identified 20 players below, from either the current 40-man roster or one of the inactive lists (and thus would have to go back on the 40-man after the postseason), as players who are on the bubble. I didn’t include Jason Heyward, whose future is already certain, and am operating under the belief that Javier Assad, P.J. Higgins, Adrian Sampson, Nick Madrigal, Patrick Wisdom, and Jeremiah Estrada are “locks.” Your mileage may vary on one or two of those guys, but it seems correct as we sit here today.
These are the guys that I could probably be talked into one way or the other, so let me lay out the cases for and against keeping each on the 40-man roster before coming to any soft conclusions …
Case for: He has a guaranteed contract and options remaining, offers versatility and theoretical thump off the bench. Wound up hitting .259/.315/.431/110 wRC+ in his injury-shortened season.
Case against: The upside that Bote’s fantastic exit velocities suggested never materialized, as he’ll be 30 next April. Younger, internal options (like Levi Jordan) provide a similar skillset without taking up a 40-man spot.
Case for: Really effective when healthy in 2022, particularly as a LOOGY (even though that role doesn’t exist anymore), as left-handed hitters went 2-for-29 against him. Improved slider as a result of working with the Cubs pitching team.
Case against: He’s arbitration-eligible and I think you’d only project him in short relief anymore. Is it worth paying a guaranteed seven figures for this limited skillset? Could you non-tender him and get him to return on an expensive minor league deal?
Case for: A guy the Cubs identified as someone they could help discover more power, and it came true, with Crook posting the best HR/FB% of his career.
Case against: Cubs are loaded with RHH outfielders, and outside of a really hot June-July, Crook was relatively below-average in Triple-A. He’s oft-injured, strikes out a lot, and a below-average arm limits his defensive capabilities.
Case for: Has generally risen to the challenge in Major League opportunities. Pitching coaches definitely see a lot of potential for improvements.
Case against: Stuff went backwards this year, had a 7.55 ERA in the minors this season. The stuff grades horribly, 25 on the fastball and 30 on the slider by Cameron Grove’s 20-80 model. Never rediscovered the changeup after his arm injuries.
Mark Leiter Jr.
Case for: I think he made a pretty good case on the field this year, worth 0.8 wins by bWAR, with an xFIP even better than his ERA. His split-changeup has been one of the most successful in baseball, and with six pitches, you figure some sequence optimization is more than possible.
Case against: Will be out of options and 32 next season, you figure there’s probably not another jump in stuff to be had. Do you let him fight for a middle relief spot in Spring Training, or is a 40-man spot too valuable for that player type?
Case for: One of the more talented left-handed throwers of a baseball on Earth when healthy.
Case against: Has faced seven batters in the last 161 weeks.
Case for: Versatile, bats from the left, tons of Triple-A success. Signs of getting comfortable; had a .186 ISO in his final 39 games of the season.
Case against: Will be out of options next season, and will you want to be stuck with a bench containing both Nick Madrigal and McKinstry? Has not been able to translate a good contact rate from the minors to the Majors, and I thought (though the numbers don’t really reflect it) he seemed pretty shaky defensively in the second half.
Case for: Threw a really fun no-hitter. Entered this season with a pretty long track record of being somewhere between average and replacement level, and versatile at that.
Case against: Arbitration-eligible and out of options. Could be his best days are behind him.
Case for: Bats on the left side. Sample is large enough that you trust he’s at least league average against right-handed pitching.
Case against: Can’t play against lefties at all, bad baserunner, seems a stretch in center field anymore. Out of options, and eligible for arbitration for the first time. Do you let him fight for a job in Spring Training because you need the lefty bat option?
Case for: Fun and (usually) smart player, doesn’t complicate things with his approach or defensively at either second or third base.
Case against: Will turn 31 before next season, limited upside, missed most of 2021 with an injury.
Case for: We saw hints of the power and exit velocities that he can produce when running good. Lived up to his billing as a positive clubhouse presence. Track record of success before 2022.
Case against: Due a raise on his 2022 salary of $4.55 million, which he certainly did not play up to, judging by his -0.9 bWAR. Hit a paltry .197/.284/.299 after that initial good nine-game stretch when he was acquired.
Case for: Good defensive first baseman, pre-arbitration with multiple option seasons remaining. Takes his walks, offers all-fields approach. Different look.
Case against: Contact abilities have regressed as he’s faced better pitching, especially breaking pitches. He’s a first baseman that doesn’t slug, and the team has internal options that seem equivalent or … preferable?
Case for: Showed really exciting and hyper-unique stuff during his brief time in the Majors. Will only eat a 40-man spot during the offseason, can slide him onto 60-day IL when Spring Training begins.
Case against: Will miss a good chunk of 2023 with an injury, so can you non-tender him and give him a bit of a raise on a minor league deal to rehab off the 40-man roster?
Case for: A theoretical plus in raw stuff, plain and simple. Staff hasn’t had the opportunity to develop him, plenty of low-hanging fruit for improvement.
Case against: Fastball dropped a tick-and-a-half in 2022, and it already yielded less whiffs than you’d expect when it was closer to 98. Stuff seems less sexy as organization has other options that throw in the upper nineties.
Case for: Executes. Offers multi-inning versatility with multiple pitches that he commands at a better than league average rate. Secondary pitches have good big league track record.
Case against: Fastball velocity has dipped as season went along, and pitch was just average before. Fungible players are the most likely to feel the impacts of roster crunches.
Case for: It’s just really good stuff. Uelmen’s sinker and slider both grade really well, and I think the changeup is big league caliber, too. Unique release point that should make the stuff even play up, if located correctly. 2.16 ERA in final eight appearances.
Case against: Too often threw balls or pitches down the middle third. Some memorable blow-ups in big spots. Do you worry he can’t rise to occasion?
Case for: A really fun prospect with an intriguing set of skills. I argued that his stuff late in 2021 was good enough to succeed out of a Major League bullpen in 2022.
Case against: Will turn 26 early next season, hasn’t thrown a pitch above A-ball, and voluntarily sat out the 2022 season.
Case for: Has been 12% better than the league average pitcher during his time in the Majors, with not-insignificant stretches where he’s been a really successful set-up man. A lot of the failures he’s had seem to be when used incorrectly (for second inning or back-to-back days), so should be correctable.
Case against: Has had not-insignificant stretches where he’s completely ineffective; runs into barrels way too often. Arbitration-eligible, and should be able to command fairly decent salary.
Case for: Would come off the 40-man roster on the first day of Spring Training, where he’d go to 60-day IL. Is always so successful when healthy and on the mound.
Case against: Likely wouldn’t reach Majors in 2023 after Tommy John surgery. Should surely be non-tendered and asked to return and rehab on a minor league contract.
Case for: Beautiful left-handed swing with 4-5 positions of versatility that he can offer a big league bench.
Case against: Got an everyday opportunity at Iowa in 2022, and his 91 wRC+ suggests an offensive upside that isn’t enough for his defensive profile.
Okay, it’s put up or shut up time. Here’s what I got, using the timeline laid out in my aforementioned offseason calendar post.
Outrighted the day after postseason (must be 7): Heyward, Bote, Mills, Wieck, Quiroz, Brault, Vizcaino.
DFA’d or traded at least by protection day (6): Crook, Espinoza, Rivas, Rucker, Wick, Young.
Non-Tendered and then offered an above-market minor league deal (4): McKinstry, Roberts, Reyes, Ortega.
Kept, with status revisited when needed with other offseason additions: Marquez, Rodriguez, Uelmen, Leiter.
This would open up to 10 spots for free agents, trades, waiver claims, and prospect protection decisions. The Cubs will get an additional 3 spots as Willson Contreras, Drew Smyly, and Wade Miley hit free agency.