The roster is pretty much set before spring training even starts, and it almost seems like the whole of February and March is just a formality. Barring health and performance issues, the only thing to really watch is how the rotation lines up, how at-bats are distributed, and how the relievers will be deployed.
The depth of relievers that are on the roster or have been invited to camp reminded me of the taxi squad idea that Dabynsky had once upon a time during the championship season. Once again, we are relying on the invaluable Arizona Phil for this exercise, because he has one of the most comprehensive lists of roster implications for the Cubs that you can find on the internet. There are also the non-roster invitees, who can potentially surprise us and step in if an emergency arises.
Of the NRIs, the only ones I think that have a chance to make the roster at any point are Anthony Bass and Kyle Ryan. Both have prior MLB experience and have shown flashes of effectiveness, although they have also been blown up, which explains the whole NRI thing. Bass and Ryan, if they stay in the Cubs system and don’t opt out to try to latch on to another team, wouldn’t cost a roster spot until they are needed, so that’s the last resort before a midseason trade or signing.
Arizona Phil shows a few of the 40-man rostered pitchers as having options and who are freely movable between the Cubs and Iowa if necessary. This is useful for doubleheaders, injuries, and ineffectiveness. Carl Edwards Jr., for example, has an option left, but it’s unlikely he will be optioned unless he really craps the bed in the early going. The top prospects, Adbert Alzolay and Oscar de la Cruz, also obviously have options left, but it’s unlikely they get called up before September unless more than a few pitchers get hurt.
As for the rest, the depth pieces include Dario Alvarez (who has an option remaining and will probably be one of the first guys up if needed), Luke Farrell, Cory Mazzoni, Alec Mills, Randy Rosario, and Shae Simmons (who just officially signed):
The #Cubs and RHP Shae Simmons have agreed to terms on a 2018 major league split contract.
LHP Drew Smyly has been placed on the 60-day DL. pic.twitter.com/yVcsXRBPhr
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) February 16, 2018
I believe the most likely candidates that will come up to replace, say, Justin Grimm, will be in this group:
I think Maples and Zastryzny will get some frequent bus miles, while Tseng will be emergency rotation depth. Eddie Butler is out of options but there’s a chance the Cubs can sneak him through waivers to keep him as an emergency starter as well. It would take some major strides for Underwood to make it to Chicago this season, but him being on the roster already makes the move a bit more plausible.
I believe the official taxi squad would most likely include Alvarez, Maples, Simmons (if he stays healthy), and Zastryzny to back up the top eight in the rotation. The rest of the guys would be the backup backups, to act as safeguards to an absolute disaster. Building up this much depth even before Cactus League play starts is rather impressive, and although we can’t really expect every contingency guy to be as elite as the pitchers we predict to make the team, at least they can eat some serviceable innings when needed.