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How Cubs are approaching the new 26-man roster rule

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USA TODAY

How Cubs are approaching the new 26-man roster rule

The designated hitter isn't coming to the National League yet and Major League Baseball is not about to enact an electronic strike zone for the 2020 season.

But there are some smaller changes in place that will have far-reaching implications on the game this upcoming season. 

One such shift is the move from a 25-man roster to a 26-man roster on a daily basis — a decision that will shape how the Cubs and their competition attempt to maximize the players in their organization.

With the addition of an extra roster spot, however, comes the caveat that teams cannot carry more than 13 pitchers. The Cubs have consistently worked with an eight-man bullpen in recent seasons, so there shouldn't be much change there. 

It will mean that the Cubs will have an extra position player on the bench, giving first-year manager David Ross another weapon to deploy late in games. With a 13-man pitching staff in the past, the Cubs have often been forced to roll with a three-man bench (plus the backup catcher), which isn't always conducive to playing the best matchups or covering for an injury to a position player.

The new rule also means the Cubs won't have the luxury of calling up an extra arm on a given day and playing with an even shorter bench during extreme circumstances.

"We actually lose a bit of flexibility because there were times where we'd get really strapped in an extra-inning game or something where for a day, we'd go to a nine-man pen," Theo Epstein said. "We won't be able to do that anymore. So it's really an extra position player, which is nice. 

"It gives us an opportunity for any dynamic pinch-hit options, conceivably a nice pinch-running option, defensive replacements — it makes platooners a little bit more manageable on your roster having that extra position player. We've been giving it some thought."

With that in mind, here's a few options as to how the Cubs can make the most of the new rule:

1. An extra catcher

Another position player spot could mean room for another catcher, at least temporarily. 

In recent seasons, the Cubs have utilized three backstops on their roster for a time, including last season with Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini and Martin Maldonado for a couple weeks. They also did so throughout the 2016 playoff run with Contreras, Ross and Miguel Montero forming a three-headed monster.

Given Contreras' and Caratini's positional versatility, the Cubs had alternatives in the past to rotate through three catchers without sacrificing much on the bench. It also helps that Caratini is a switch-hitter.

But in an ideal world, the Cubs would still have three or four other position players who are not primary catchers. The 26th roster spot would give the Cubs the flexibility to have at least three position players on the bench plus the option of two catchers. That would be perfect if a situation arises where Contreras, Caratini or one of the other backstops is banged up and going to miss a day or two.

2. A speed demon

Terrance Gore would be the ideal 26th man along these lines as a speedster on the basepaths who can help steal you a base in a crucial spot or simply serve as a rangy defensive replacement in the outfield or an upgrade on the basepaths late in games. 

Under Epstein, the Cubs have typically found a guy like that for September when rosters expand. Gore was here in 2018 and — as Cubs fans remember — scored the team's only run of the NL Wild-Card Game when he entered as a pinch-runner for Anthony Rizzo. 

If the Cubs were going into 2020 as surefire World Series contenders and a roster packed with quality options, a guy under this speed category might be the perfect fit for the final spot to help provide a different dynamic. But this roster has question marks all over the place and they have more needs than simply adding speed.

3. A merry-go-round of options

The Cubs — like many MLB teams — have often utilized the eighth bullpen spot as a revolving door of arms on the shuttle from Triple-A to the big leagues. That's an effective strategy while waiting to see if fringe guys can put it all together and take the next step (like Rowan Wick did in 2019). 

It also works to always ensure a fresh arm during long stretches in the schedule or an overworked bullpen. 

That strategy can also be easily applied to this final position player spot. The Cubs don't currently have to commit to only one player to fill the role and, as such, can use it as rotation depending on needs at a given time.

The Cubs added to that group of potential options Monday when they reached a minor-league deal with infielder Carlos Asuaje. They also have veteran utility player Hernan Perez (a December signing) who can fill the same role, in addition to outfielders Noel Cuevas and Ian Miller — another pair of minor-league free agent signings.

This is probably the most likely course of action for the Cubs with regards to the final roster spot — at the moment, at least. As has been well-documented, the Cubs have not yet made any sort of shake-up to their roster with a trade, so they are currently still in limbo with the rest of the roster. It's hard to nail down what they want to do with the 26th man when they're still trying to figure out the best way to piece together the top of the roster.

4. Sorting out the second base position

If the season started tomorrow, the Cubs would have a plethora of options at second base:

Nico Hoerner
David Bote
Ian Happ
Daniel Descalso
Tony Kemp
Robel Garcia
Hernan Perez
Carlos Asuaje

The Cubs might want to give Hoerner more seasoning in the minor leagues (he completely skipped Triple-A) to start the year, but even if they choose to go that route, there are still a lot of other names in the mix. 

"Second base is an area where we definitely are out there looking, but we have a number of good players on our roster who can play second base," Epstein said. "We've said we're not closing any doors on Nico; we're open-minded and will use spring training and put our heads together on what we think is best for him, best for the team. 

"But you could see a combination of players fill that role for us, including the possibility of someone who's not currently on the roster."

Descalso and Kemp are valued in the clubhouse and can also play other positions (though the Cubs essentially only deployed Descalso as a second baseman). It's a bit redundant to have a pair of left-handed-hitting veteran second basemen on the roster — even as insurance for Hoerner — but Descalso is owed $2.5 million with very little trade value and Kemp provides some much-needed contact ability and energy for this team.

Bote can also play elsewhere and figures to be on the roster in some capacity. Happ has mostly been considered an outfielder throughout his Cubs tenure, but he has been vocal about his desire to play second base.

Garcia, Perez and Asuaje could all begin the year in the minor leagues and provide depth at Triple-A, but there is still no easy answer to the second-base question if Hoerner is not on the Opening Day roster (or fallback options behind him on the depth chart). 

The 26th spot could provide an avenue for the Cubs to sort that all out while still ensuring they have enough depth elsewhere on the roster. 

5. Platooning

As Epstein said, the expanded roster could create more platoon advantages all season. That won't be the case for pitching staffs, obviously, but it would allow teams to carry an extra bat who mashes against lefties or something of that ilk. 

The Cubs could've really used that last year, as they struggled throughout the season against southpaws.

6. Maximum fun

Do the Cubs have a Michael Lorenzen waiting to be unearthed? 

The extra roster spot could lead to a bit of fun if the Cubs wanted to search for a potential two-way player. 

I don't quite know how MLB will enforce the 13-pitchers rule — is Lorenzen going to count as a pitcher, or can the Reds put him down as an outfielder who can also pitch? — but the extra roster spot could conceivably emerge as a position to experiment with throughout the season. 

Don't expect that to happen, but it sure would be fun if more MLB teams gave two-way players a chance and a 26th roster spot year-round could help make that a reality. 

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David Ross names first three probable starting pitchers for spring training games

David Ross names first three probable starting pitchers for spring training games

David Ross is wasting no time when it comes to the competition for the Cubs’ fifth rotation spot.

Alec Mills, Tyler Chatwood and Adbert Alzolay will start the Cubs’ first three spring training games, Ross told reporters in Arizona on Thursday. The three are competing for Cole Hamels' vacated rotation spot, with Colin Rea being an outside candidate.

Chatwood is the favorite to win the job — Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy suggested as much last week. The 30-year-old infamously struggled with his command as a starter in 2018 and was removed from the rotation by season’s end. He bounced back in 2019, working as a long reliever and occasional spot starter.

2018: 5.30 ERA, 8.25 BB/9, 19.6 BB%, 95 BB in 103 2/3 IP
2019: 3.76 ERA, 4.34 BB/9, 11.4 BB%, 37 BB in 76 2/3 IP

Mills impressed in limited big-league action last season, sporting a 2.75 ERA (4.19 FIP) in nine games (4 starts). He stepped up big last September in place of an ailing Hamels, tossing 4 2/3 shutout innings in a heartbreaking loss against the Cardinals.

Alzolay made four appearances last season with mixed results in his two starts:

June 25: 4 2/3 IP, 1 H, 1 R/1 ER, 4 BB/4K
July 1: 2 2/3 IP, 10 H, 7 R/7 ER, 1 BB/3K

The 24-year-old missed most of the 2018 minor-league season with a lat strain and his career-high for innings is 120 1/3 (2016). Alzolay views himself as a starting pitcher but wants to help the team any way he can. He also admitted he could have an innings limit, but it depends on how his body feels.

“2018, I got hurt and then last year — including stand up games and all that — I probably got 200 innings,” Alzolay said last month. “Probably won’t throw more than [that in 2020]. Probably [have some limitations]. We’ll see. To me, if I’m feeling good, I feel great and I can keep going, I will.

“My first goal is stay healthy the whole time from here until October. And then just help the team in whatever they need me to do. That’s my whole goal this year.”

Even if Chatwood wins the rotation spot, Mills and Alzolay could make the Opening Day roster as relievers, and make at least a few starts this season. Alzolay has minor-league options remaining, so he could also start the year in Triple-A Iowa's rotation.

Mills is out of minor-league options, so he'd be the leading candidate to fill Chatwood's role in the bullpen.

What Cubs lineup could look like in 2020 if Kris Bryant leads off

What Cubs lineup could look like in 2020 if Kris Bryant leads off

Kris Bryant told reporters Wednesday he's offered to leadoff for the Cubs this season to manager David Ross. And while nothing is set in stone, the 2016 NL MVP is one of the Cubs’ best options for the role.

Bryant isn’t a prototypical leadoff guy but it’s not like we’re discussing a cleanup man moving to the No. 1 spot in the lineup. Yes, he has power, but he’s also an on-base machine (career .385 OBP) who accepts his walks (career 11.9 percent walk rate).

Considering Bryant’s plate discipline, opponents will either have to pitch to him or run the risk of walking him ahead of Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras. Bryant leading off will give those guys more RBI opportunities. He’s also one of the Cubs’ best baserunners, and his ability to take an extra base benefits those hitting behind him.

It’s important to note Bryant wouldn’t change his approach in the top spot — his power won't just disappear. He has a career .502 slugging percentage with the bases empty and could put the Cubs ahead right away with a long ball or put them in business with an extra-base hit.

Bryant will be himself no matter where he hits: an elite on-base guy who almost always puts together a quality at-bat. He’s as good a leadoff candidate as any on the Cubs (no disrespect meant to Anthony Rizzo, aka the “Greatest Leadoff Hitter Of All-Time”).

If Bryant leads off, here's what standard lineups could look like, both against righties and lefties:

Versus RHP

1. (R) Kris Bryant (3B)
2. (L) Anthony Rizzo (1B)
3. (R) Javier Báez (SS)
4. (L) Kyle Schwarber (LF)
5. (R) Willson Contreras (C)
6. (L) Jason Heyward (RF)
7. (R) David Bote
8. Pitcher
9. (S) Ian Happ (CF)

Former Cubs manager Joe Maddon liked to alternate lefties and righties in his lineup. With MLB’s new three-batter minimum rule for relievers, I stuck to that mentality to create a late-inning advantage for the Cubs.

Schwarber-Báez-Rizzo looks lethal and is somewhat interchangeable. Rizzo recently said he prefers hitting third or fourth but will hit where Ross wants him. Ross suggested Wednesday Rizzo will hit behind Bryant; it looks unorthodox but Ross can always adjust it. 

Rizzo has fared well hitting second and hitting him there keeps him and Bryant back-to-back.

Rizzo hitting second (237 plate appearances): .300/.401/.515, 153 wRC+.

I like Báez getting RBI chances behind Bryzzo, the Cubs’ two best on-base guys. And, he mashes in the three hole:

Báez career hitting third (118 plate appearances): .366/.398/.571, 161 wRC+ 

Similarly, Schwarber has been more successful hitting cleanup than any other spot:

Schwarber career hitting fourth (68 plate appearances): .393/.441/.787, 211 wRC+

Those aren't the biggest sample sizes, but the numbers are eye-popping. Contreras and Heyward hitting fifth and sixth brings us back to a more traditional Cubs lineup. The second base competition is wide-open, but I'll give Bote a slight edge after he hit .274 with a .425 OBP post-All-Star break last season.

Bote will also play some third, which is when we'll see Daniel Descalso and Jason Kipnis (if he makes the roster) at second.

RELATED: Cubs roster projection 1.0: Bullpen, second base competitions are wide open

From there, I like a pitcher hitting eighth and Happ hitting ninth as a second leadoff guy. He has a good eye for the strike zone and his ability to get on base will give the top of the order more RBI chances.

Now, for the lineup against lefty starting pitchers:

1. (R) Kris Bryant (3B)
2. (L) Anthony Rizzo (1B)
3. (R) Javier Báez (SS)
4. (L) Kyle Schwarber (LF)
5. (R) Willson Contreras (C)
6. (L) Jason Heyward OR (R) Steven Souza Jr. (RF)
7. (R) Albert Almora Jr. (CF)
8. Pitcher
9. (R) David Bote (2B)

Ross believes in a structured lineup, so this looks pretty similar to the previous order. Heyward isn’t going to sit against every lefty starter, but when he does Souza’s power bat will fit in nicely in the sixth spot.

In this scenario, Hoerner is in Triple-A and Bote is the starting second baseman against lefties. Where Bote hits is contingent on Almora. I’d put Bote ninth when Almora is in the lineup because the former is more of an on-base threat. Almora’s contact-oriented approach could help move ahead any baserunners ahead of him. The same can be said about Bote, but I like the idea of him getting on base for the top of the order.

Happ, a switch-hitter, will also start against righties and I can see him hitting sixth, seventh or ninth. A lot of this hinges on how he, Almora and Bote are performing at the plate. Each will get their at-bats, but the Cubs need one to emerge as a consistent contributor.

Do these groupings look unfamiliar? Sure, but Bryant leading off will put us in new waters. Again, nothing is set in stone, and the Cubs have a ton of lineup combinations for this season. Seeing Bryant atop the order sure looks like an enticing possibility, however.