If we’re being really honest — which is what friends do, and I consider both of you my friends — nothing about a team’s Opening Day roster is set in stone. There is, however, a degree of finality that accompanies certain early roster decisions. Some players are in camp on prove-it minor league deals, others are out of options, and some are simply biding their time as injuries delay their inevitable activation.
The Cubs are juggling each of those matters as they come down the home stretch of spring training. And while the 25th roster spot would normally prove utterly inconsequential, it’s really the only source of intrigue at Sloan Park these days. Unless, that is, you enjoy ubiquitous references to Ryan Court’s Elgin roots.
And though the decision to release Justin Grimm was not surprising in and of itself, the resultant fallout from the move has created a measure of flux in the Cubs’ roster logic. Would it be fair, then, to refer to Grimm as a flux capacitor? Survey says…X. Darn.
The popular opinion heading into camp was that Grimm, whose $2.2 million salary was “awarded” through arbitration and was thus non-guaranteed, had the clubhouse lead on the last roster spot. Eddie Butler, who is out of minor league options and can work in long relief or spot-starting duties, was viewed by most as the most likely to succeed Grimm.
Except here we are with Grimm playing for the Royals and even less clarity when it comes to his old team. Not only has Butler not secured the spot, but there have even been rumblings that the Cubs might like journeyman Anthony Bass for the role. Then again, Joe Maddon seems to have taken quite a shine to the hard-throwing righty the Cubs got back in last year’s trade of Matt Szczur.
“He’s got a lightning bolt for an arm,” Maddon said (subscription required) of Justin Hancock. “This guy is really intriguing to me. I didn’t know him from anybody when he came into camp. And first pitch he threw, I said, ‘Whoa, who is that?’ And then I looked more deeply and I’ve been studying it more deeply. He’s very, very interesting.”
Hancock has pitched only 4.2 innings over five appearances this spring, but he’s racked up six strikeouts against two walks and two hits. He’s not on the 40-man roster yet, so carrying him to Miami would mean a change there, though the Cubs have room to do that with ease. Hancock would basically be the first in what is sure to be a rotating cast of characters at the end of the ‘pen.
Which brings us to another wrinkle in this whole thing, and that’s how many pitchers they even plan to have on the roster coming out of camp, period. Maddon had said early on that the plan was to run with eight relievers, though he’s soft-pedaled that more recently.
“When it gets down to the very end, man, there might be some guys you don’t want to lose,” Maddon admitted. If you [go] seven- or eight-man, what does that mean position player-wise?”
Assuming Pedro Strop is ready to go by the Milwaukee seres at the latest (six games in), the Cubs might feel there’s more value in carrying an additional position player than another reliever. That would leave Butler, Hancock, Bass, and Kyle Ryan all on the outside looking in, but it’d give new life to Peter Bourjos in particular.
“Love him, absolutely love him,” Maddon said of the former Cardinal. “I’ve had a lot of good conversations with him, and I’ve admired his work from a distance for a while. I told him all of that stuff. I spent a lot of time talking with him in this camp about things I’ve noticed. The conversation is easy, he’s a pro.”
Bourjos is a solid defender who bats from the right side and could offer a late-inning platoon and/or defensive replacement at all three outfield spots. He’s also a Park Ridge, IL native and would fulfill the requisite hometown-hero-living-out-a-childhood-dream narrative, so that’s a big fat checkmark for him. Okay, not really.
And what about Victor Caratini? Given the probability that Chris Gimenez has earned the role as primary backup to Willson Contreras, Caratini could be relegated to raking against overmatched AAA pitchers. Unless the Cubs like the idea of rostering a switch-hitter who could catch on occasion and spell Anthony Rizzo at first. But even with nothing left to prove in the minors, Caratini simply wouldn’t get enough playing time in Chicago with the way things are set right now.
You also have to factor in his potential value as a trade chip. Not that other teams are going to forget about him entirely or that any previous scouting will be thrown out the window one way or the other, but OPS’ing .950+ in the minors is sexier than big league bench duty.
So where does that leave us?
Again, it’s down to whether there’s more value in carrying an additional position player or an extra bullpen arm, with the understand that either option will ultimately be expendable. And while the Cubs have made great use of both over the past few seasons, it seems at this point that they might want to hedge their bets to the arm-side right out of the gate. Even with the additional off days built into the schedule, the pitching staff is a much more fickle pickle than the core group of position players.
And as much as I’m tempted to continue leaning to Butler, his maddening ability to miss the strike zone without missing bats has me thinking his time in Chicago could be drawing nigh. Bass has been roughed up in his last two starts, though he’s got five strikeouts and hasn’t walked a man yet. That pound-the-zone mentality fits well with what pitching coach Jim Hickey preaches.
Hancock has more raw talent and seems like a guy who could really bust out, so the Cubs could extract a lot of value out of him. Then again, they’ve got several pitches of similar ilk and might want a change of pace. Hmm, I’m almost talking myself back into Butler at this point.
Of course, I’ve gone through all this assuming Strop is able to avoid the DL to start the season. Should he have to go on the shelf for at least 10 days, the question expands to whether the Cubs opt for either two of the aforementioned tweener pitchers, or just one of them and one of either Bourjos or Caratini. Ugh, all these decisions.
A lot hinges on Strop’s readiness and on how these guys perform over the next week. The Cubs are going to take this thing right down to the wire so that the decisions they make regarding the 25th man on the roster, however negligible they might seem right now, don’t cost them down the road.