In Thursday afternoon’s Chicago Cubs practice game, the regulars rested, but there were some implications for the guys who did play to entertain the crowd. You see, the roster heading to St. Louis in April for the season opener is pretty much set, and on the position player side, there is only one bench spot to be played for. I was considering making the poll (see below) include Munenori Kawasaki (yes, we’re serious) and Jeimer Candelario, but they won’t factor in on the depth chart unless something catastrophic happens. So it really comes down to two guys: Matt Szczur and Tommy La Stella. From December:
This is where we could well be surprised and see the Cubs make one final addition, if not then spot 25 comes down to either Tommy La Stella or Matt Szczur. With Bryant and Zobrist able to play the outfield the Cubs could do without Szczur. However, with Baez able to play all over the infield, they could also do without La Stella. If fans had their choice, they would likely choose Szczur though I think Maddon likes La Stella more. He might choose to go with the extra infielder rather than the extra outfielder taking the advantages Bryant and Zobrist offer.
Having just written about the Cubs’ financial flexibility, it seems important to note that the decision for the final active roster spot is not exactly an expensive one. An interesting quirk that I noticed is that Matt Szczur seems to be eligible for Super Two status (he currently has one year and 134 days of service time, which would become two years and 134 days, just above the predicted cutoff), if he makes the team and stays in Chicago all season long. So, like Tommy La Stella, Szczur will hit arbitration for the first time in 2018. But for 2017, neither will be paid much above the league minimum. Kawasaki and Candelario most likely stick around in Iowa for most of the season, so will be much less expensive.
At one point this spring, Tommy La Stella had to sit out a few games to rest a lingering leg ailment, but he has since returned to the revolving mass of players in the spring training lineups. Matt Szczur has factored into more practice games so far, and if you care about spring training statistics (I don’t, really, but they’re kind of fun to look at), then Szczur has done better in the small sample he’s racked up. He also happened to deliver the deciding run batted in, since the Cubs shut out the Dodgers:
It’s great to see Szczur rack up his hits in the Cactus League, but I don’t think this will have as much bearing on the front office decisions as people think. I do agree with Anno that La Stella most likely will get the last bench spot, but I’m starting to waver on my thinking. Although Szczur can only play the outfield, he seems like he is a decent defender at every spot by the eye test, and he also seems like a capable baserunner. He also happens to be well-liked and respected as a teammate.
“He’s such a good teammate,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You saw that last year; you saw how the guys gravitated toward him. He’s not on the playoff rosters but he’s with us and he’s on the top step constantly.
“It’s just who he is. It is the football mentality, but it’s also him. This is a pretty good human being.”
La Stella has several perceived advantages over Szczur. He’s a better overall hitter, he is left-handed, and he can play the infield (albeit just adequately). He also happens to have minor league options remaining, but you may recall that the last time he was optioned to Iowa, it didn’t work out as well as it could have. I do think the Cubs players like La Stella and would never talk bad of him, as they protected him from too much media scrutiny last season during his hiatus, but I do have to wonder how each player contributes to the overall mojo of the clubhouse. As has been espoused throughout the Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer era of Cubs baseball thus far, clubhouse chemistry does matter, which is why they have tried so hard to make sure the players are not only talented, but also decent people who can get along with each other. So the X-factor seems to be which guy the other 24 guys will get along with better.
We do know that Kawasaki and Candelario are resigned to (but accepting of) their impending Iowa assignment. There’s a fun story about that, as Kawasaki has a good perspective about his situation and enjoys hanging out with his buddy anyway. As long as the Cubs are gung ho on carrying 13 pitchers, though, they will only have one spot left on the bench. I don’t relish the idea of losing Szczur to waivers (I think the Cubs may be hoping that his strong spring could result in a trade for a lottery ticket), nor do I feel confident that La Stella would accept a minor league assignment, at least until they are able to send Szczur to another destination where he might get more playing time. So I leave it to you, the readers…who do you think the Cubs pick to open the season with?
If the 25th man is the only main issue and both guys are capable, then the Cubs are obviously in pretty good shape. Thanks for your input, and feel free to explain your choice in the comments.