The Cubs didn’t make any surprise additions to the 40-man roster ahead of Tuesday evening’s deadline as they announced the selections of Kevin Alcántara, Ben Brown, Brennen Davis, and Ryan Jensen. Between those moves and their trade for versatile 27-year-old Miles Mastrobuoni, the roster now stands at 38 and some of their most coveted prospects have been protected from Rule 5 Draft poaching. That’s good, but it’d be a mistake to think the Cubs bought themselves any little breathing room as they prepare for the heaviest activity of the offseason.
Let’s start with the most obvious issue, which is that they still need to add several free agents in order to round out a full team. The Cubs want a catcher and a center fielder, so there go the two remaining spots. They also want to sign a big-time shortstop while upgrading at first base/DH — Matt Mervis still needs a spot as well — and shoring up both the rotation and bullpen. By my rough math, that puts them over by at least six players and as many as nine.
Mastrobuoni has a very similar skillset to Zach McKinstry, so it makes a lot of sense for the Cubs to remove one of them from the 40-man in the coming days. Mark Leiter Jr. isn’t on very solid ground and Michael Rucker‘s grasp on a roster spot may be tenuous. Rafael Ortega won’t remain following the acquisition of another veteran outfielder and Alfonso Rivas might not make it past the inevitable Mervis promotion.
Alexander Canario will eventually be placed on the 60-day IL, though that can’t happen until spring training. Even if the Cubs could make that move right now, they’d still have barely enough room to make the requisite additions in order to be competitive in 2023. That means they’re going to have to remove another player or four from the current group, most likely via trade.
I could easily see some combination of Nick Madrigal, Christopher Morel, Nelson Velázquez, Patrick Wisdom, Rowan Wick, Adrian Sampson, and Erich Uelmen being moved this winter. The Cubs have another potential safety valve in Alexander Vizcaíno, who failed to report for spring training and had been on the restricted list until he had to be reinstated by rule.
Maybe you’re still thinking that’s not such a big deal because it’s easy enough to find a path to a much better roster with just a few select moves. That’s absolutely correct, but the next issue is that the organization’s depth could take a hit due to the sheer number of players still eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. Even after protecting the four prospects above, the Cubs have a whopping 61 players in the system who could be plucked away.
Even if only two or three of them at the most are indeed picked by other teams, we’re talking about the kinds of players who could potentially stick at the big league level. Among those who could be at risk are pitchers Danis Correa, Luis Devers, Kohl Franklin, Cam Sanders, and Riley Thompson. Outfielder Darius Hill and infielders Jake Slaughter and Chase Strumpf could also be viewed as options.
Interestingly enough, Rucker was selected by the Orioles in the 2019 Rule 5 Draft and was returned to the Cubs in March of 2020 after failing to make Baltimore’s roster. So while it’s far from a death knell to see a player or three lost when the draft takes place in December, the Cubs’ greatest strength right now is prospect depth. The possibility of losing some of that depth, particularly at the high end, makes big free agent additions even more imperative.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention the big roster purge that already took place last week as several players elected free agency. That stripped away a lot of depth as well.
I’m far from a prospect expert, but I’d be surprised if another org didn’t go after Correa — Danis, not Carlos. The 23-year-old from Colombia shot through all four levels of affiliated ball in the last two seasons and has the kind of stuff that could easily show up in Pitching Ninja’s tweets. Listed at just 5-foot-11 and 150 pounds, Correa regularly hits triple digits with the fastball and has a nasty set of breaking pitches highlighted by a slider that baffles hitters when it’s on.
The downside of the Cubs’ revamped development pipeline is that they’ve now got a glut of prospects, pitchers in particular, who are going to be in a sort of limbo for a while here. That’s why it would be best for Jed Hoyer and his front office to make some bigger moves quickly in order to bring things into focus in terms of what they can do further down the roster and beyond. They’ve already begun that process, of course, I’m just anxious to see it play out.
Ed. note: Some have expressed surprise that Devers was not selected after being named the Cubs’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year, but the chances of him being selected in the Rule 5 are pretty low. Players who are chosen must be added directly to the 26-man roster and can only be removed via outright waivers, at which point they must be offered back to their original team. They can be placed on the IL but must be active for at least 90 days in order to avoid that same return policy.
Devers has yet to pitch at the Double-A level, so it’s hard to see a club taking the chance that he can stick in the bigs right away. The possibility would be greater if he had triple-digit stuff and worked as a reliever, but a primary starter with mid-90s heat doesn’t really move the needle. Where Devers really excels is in his control and ability to induce the kind of contact that results in outs, as he had just a 0.80 WHIP in 51.1 innings with South Bend.
This isn’t a knock on him at all, I just don’t really think he’s ready to be a big leaguer quite yet and I really hope other teams agree.