I have seen this idea popping up out there in various corners after yesterday’s rostering decisions by the Cubs, and I thought it worth addressing.
Basically, I have seen a lot of folks wondering why, if the Cubs still have two open spots on their 40-man roster, they didn’t protect guys like Luis Devers or Cam Sanders or Chase Strumpf or whoever. Moreover, even if there weren’t open spots, why would the Cubs keep a non-tender candidate like Rafael Ortega or Zach McKinstry or whoever on the roster instead of protecting another top prospect? How can you say it’s a “roster crunch” if the Cubs are leaving those guys on instead of protecting more prospects? And if there are still two open spots on the 40-man?
All good and fair questions, but they are questions with good and fair answers.
Let me start with the simplest answer to one of those questions. Any prospect the Cubs didn’t protect was unprotected for a reason. For example, the Cubs don’t think the unprotected prospect is a good bet to actually be taken in the Rule 5 Draft or to stay on a 26-man roster all season if he is taken.
Is a team really going to pluck Devers from High-A for their big league bullpen when, for the moment, he’s been a guy dominating low-level bats with execution and a changeup?
Sanders can touch triple digits, but the execution and control aren’t all there yet, and lots of teams have guys like that at Triple-A these days.
Strumpf’s power has taken a huge step forward, but he was striking out over 30% of the time at Double-A – does that sound like a guy ready to face big league pitchers?
This isn’t to dump on those three – and they are just examples! – but only to say that sometimes you can roll the dice, even on prospects you really like (and I do like those three a lot!). I think the Cubs do like these guys, and for a number of prospects, it was probably REALLY TOUGH to leave them unprotected. But the roster crunch means they were going to have to make some really tough decisions (and then cross their fingers on December 7 during the big league phase of the Rule 5 Draft).
OK, but what about that roster crunch part? Why are there still two open spots on the 40-man if there is a crunch?
Answering that stuff starts in another relatively simple place: the Cubs aren’t done adding players to the 40-man roster. More is coming. Much more. Maybe soon.
For example, the Cubs know they need open spots right now to be able to grab guys who hit waivers and/or are non-tendered on Friday, or even to sign a free agent who decides he’s ready to pull the trigger. Weird things happen this week and opportunities arise around the non-tender deadline, and the Cubs want to make sure they have space to do a LOT if a LOT of opportunities pop up.
Once you add a prospect to the 40-man roster to protect him, you’ve also put yourself in a corner: that player can’t be removed from the 40-man without first passing through waivers. And even if he makes it, then you’ve gotta outright him, which can be done only once in a player’s career. It would be silly to put yourself in a position to lose a guy on waivers because you got caught with your pants down this week (it’s much easier to claim a guy on waivers (goes on the 40-man) than to take him in the Rule 5 (goes on the 40-man AND THEN ALSO the 26-man)).
You also want to wait as long as you can on bubble guys this week because, who knows, maybe a trade opportunity pops up today or tomorrow (as in, sending your bubble guy elsewhere for a modest prospect return) that wasn’t there earlier in the week because rosters were still being sorted out.
The Cubs are going to add more than just two more players this offseason, so they’re going to need to clear a lot more space from here in any case. Those fringe/non-tender types? They still might get the boot this week. Even some you may not want to see the Cubs lose. The decisions on those guys clearly was wholly separate from the prospect-related roster decisions. Just because a guy is still on the 40-man roster today doesn’t mean the Cubs haven’t already done the math and are considering that guy “gone.”
The Cubs added the most prospects they could, while doing some internal guesswork on risks/opportunities. I am surprised there wasn’t at least one more prospect protected, and I do think losing someone in the Rule 5, in the end, is a real possibility. But I also know that the Cubs still need to add like five or six or seven players to the roster from here, and they don’t have close to that much space on the 40-man.
The crunch remains real, and more bubble guys will get bounced at some point. I can see some that won’t sting TERRIBLY to lose, but there are also some useful players who might get squeezed out. The Cubs’ depth is still legit. Nothing that happened yesterday changes that.