It seems that the Cubs are in line to keep three catchers, which was not expected, but does not come as a big surprise. With the versatility of the roster, the Cubs are in a position where they can keep all of Miguel Montero, David Ross, and Welington Castillo; using them in the most favorable ways for each and being able to substitute catchers in a very liberal fashion.
The versatile nature of the Cubs roster, in some ways, benefited from the years of rebuilding. Players who would not have gotten the depth of major league experience at multiple positions on contending teams were allowed to be nurtured and developed during years where the Cubs, bluntly, punted. Those players were allowed to play and succeed or fail, while the wins and losses were less important than the approach and process to become better big league players. While those seasons were difficult to endure from a fan’s perspective, the dividends they may pay could be the catalyst for an organization to make some very large jumps into baseball’s elite over the next year or two.
The most obvious player to discuss in terms of versatility is Arismendy Alcantara. He can play second base, short stop, third base, and center field. Having that kind of versatility, and having the chance to play 208.2 innings at second base and 421.0 innings in center field last season will do nothing but help him this season. Like any debuting rookie, Alcantara had his share of struggles. His .205/.254/.367 was well below the .307/.353/.537 he posted in 89 games in Iowa before his call-up. He did show the sneaky power with 10 home runs and showed some of his speed with 8 stolen bases in 13 attempts. To say all of his struggles are behind him would be a mistake for a player who is only 23 years old, but the initial shock of the major leagues should be behind him, which can allow his talent to play more true. And his ability to play so many positions will allow that talent to be on the field more consistently. He is, in essence, a 10th starter because he will get his share of starts and plate appearances in a number of different positions.
Players who may open the season in Iowa were also beneficiaries of the years spent rebuilding. It is unlikely that Junior Lake would have spent the time in the major leagues that he did if the Cubs were competitive over the course of the last two seasons. It is worth repeating that Lake never played the outfield as a professional before he was called up to the major league club in July of 2013. Lake had a very successful early major league experience, but after some adjustment from the league, he struggled in 2014, posting a -0.9 fWAR. The extended major league struggles allowed Lake to identify weaknesses and improve his overall game. Over the course of off-season play and this spring, Lake has looked and performed like a much more polished major league hitter. His (small sample) spring line of .310/.344/.345 is a vast improvement over anything he displayed in 2014, and is coming against AAA and MLB level competition. While Lake is probably not a fully developed player, he will be 25 on March 27 and he is coming into this season with playing time he likely does not get if the Cubs were actively trying to win the last few seasons. In Lake, the Cubs have a player with a lot of tools that scouts love who can play all three outfield positions. And if disaster strikes, could probably play third base, although he hasn’t since before his initial call-up.
Like Junior Lake, a player who the Cubs were allowed to develop at the major league level in 2014 was Mike Olt. His struggles were apparent, striking out 38.8% of the time in 258 plate appearances. By his own admission, Olt pressed and tried to make a good impression when he came up with the big league club last spring. It showed in his approach last season. He swung at 22.7% of pitches thrown to him outside the strike zone, and only made contact with those pitches 43.8% of the time. He also let pitches in the zone get past him, swinging at just under 62%, and making contact with 75.2% of those pitches. In a lot of ways, Olt was getting himself out. Olt has looked much better this spring after showing some signs of improvement in his late season call-up after being optioned to Iowa. While Olt’s development was stunted by injuries and vision problems, his experience last season, moving past those struggles can make him an asset this season. At best, his hitting and his very good third base defense allow him to cement himself into that position, moving Kris Bryant to the outfield, and allowing the Cubs another hitter who can work counts, take walks, and hit for power in the back half of the line-up. The more realistic and likely scenario is that he could serve as a useful situational hitter, giving Joe Maddon a guy off the bench late in games for a match-up with a tough lefty while being able to fill in at third base, first base, and the corner outfield spots.
While his sample is a lot smaller than that of Junior Lake and Mike Olt, Matt Szczur may prove to be a younger, more athletic version of Reed Johnson. He’s never been a game-changer at the plate, but his athleticism and speed make him a valuable late game substitute as a defender or as a pinch runner. Like Lake and Olt, Szczur looks much better at the plate this spring, as well. While the numbers are deceiving and reek of sample size bias, his spring line of .346/.414/.808 is something never before seen by Szczur at any level. Those numbers, based on his history, will not be sustained, but being called up in mid August last season could not have hurt him because it gave him more opportunities at plate appearances than a typical September call would have.
Less heralded, but equally important to the depth and versatility of the Cubs position players is the development of the two stars with proven track records: Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. Both Castro and Rizzo saw 2013 seasons where they struggled. For Castro, it was the first time in his career where he saw significant struggles, as he worked through altering his approach at the plate. Rizzo had a 2013 where his struggles were somewhat expected because it was his first full season in the major leagues. With both players making adjustments and becoming all-stars at their positions in 2014, it allows Joe Maddon to pencil two players into the line-up each day, allowing him to mix and match the other position players to provide the best match-ups. And because both players play nearly everyday, their positions will only be open whenever Maddon makes the decision to give either a day off. Their ability is well-known, but their availability is a major asset for the Cubs and the overall depth of the roster.
When looking at positions across the diamond, the Cubs do not have many players who are cemented into one spot. Alcantara may be the most flexible player on the roster, but the Cubs have multiple options at every position on the field.
At first base, Anthony Rizzo should be penciled in for all of the team’s 162 games, minus one or two game days off during the season. He is one of the true young stars in the game, and he will start the overwhelming majority of the time. However, Mike Olt is more than capable at filling in at first base and has the benefit of hitting right-handed, allowing Rizzo to take a day off against a left-handed pitcher. It is unlikely that Rizzo hits .300/.421/.507 against lefties again in 2015. He was, by nearly every measure, a better hitter against left-handed pitching than he was against right-handed pitching and made enormous leaps from a 2013 season where he struggled when he did not have the platoon advantage. Allowing Mike Olt the opportunity to take some of those at-bats with the platoon advantage at first base gives the Cubs a player who can play good defense and bring a sound approach and good power to the position, even when Rizzo takes a day off.
The middle infield has no shortage of options, even if Javier Baez is sent to AAA to open the season. Alcantara is more than capable of playing second base on a daily basis and the newly acquired Tommy La Stella offers another option with big league service time. At short, Starlin Castro can be penciled in every day, especially if he is given the option. His 134 games last season is the fewest he’s played since his rookie year of 2010, and that was due to a late season injury. That Castro plays so often at an all-star level further increases the versatility of the line-up. What’s more, if Joe Maddon does take the opportunity to give Starlin a break, Baez showed last September that he was capable of playing short for a prolonged period of time.
Once Kris Bryant is called up, the Cubs will have 4 potential options at the hot corner, led by Bryant and Mike Olt. Tommy La Stella has shown that he can play the position capably over the course of this spring, and Arismendy Alcantara can also fill in, when needed.
The outfield may be the deepest group in the organization. With Chris Coghlan, Dexter Fowler, and Jorge Soler appearing to be the Opening Night starters, the options behind them are also plentiful. Of those options, Lake and Szczur both have the ability to contribute all the way across the outfield, while Arismendy Alcantara can play center field. In the corners, aside from the starters, the Cubs have Mike Olt, Chris Denorfia, Szczur, Lake, and Dexter Fowler can move over to left field to accommodate a start for Alcantara, while not losing Fowler at the top of the order.
As the Cubs look to jump into the competitive fires of the division, they will need the talent they’ve been able to cultivate and grow. Off-season acquisitions of Tommy La Stella and Chris Denorfia notwithstanding, the Cubs have done the bulk of their work within the organization by grooming prospects to be depth, both on a major league level and as a whole within the organization. As the 40 man roster stands currently, there are no players without major league experience. Some of those players were allowed to gain that experience through the rebuilding years. While those players may have been promoted at some point if the Cubs were trying to compete, they would have had to continue to earn their playing time, and with some of the inconsistency or poor results, would have lost on valuable experience that they were able to gain because results were less important than the process.
Moving toward Opening Night on April 5, the Cubs are finally in a position of having to make some very difficult roster decisions. They will have to leave some players with big league service off the roster because of the limited space. Invariably, though, injuries and ineffectiveness do happen. Being able to bring a player from Iowa who has been on the field at Wrigley in the past should serve the Cubs well as they move forward. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have done their jobs. They have assembled a roster with enough talent and depth to have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. That’s all a reasonable fan can ask for; a team with a chance to play competitive baseball and get into the playoffs, where anything can happen. While the rebuild was painful to watch, those players who were setting franchise records for futility were planting the seeds of competitive baseball.