Predicting Chicago Cubs Depth Charts a Month Ahead of Spring Training
For the first time since the 1909 season, the Chicago Cubs will carry the enormous target that comes with being the defending World Series champions.
There's no shortage of talent returning for the upcoming season, and they will undoubtedly be among the favorites to win it all once again in 2017.
However, there are still some roster questions that need to be answered.
Dexter Fowler, Aroldis Chapman, Jason Hammel, Travis Wood, Chris Coghlan and Trevor Cahill are all key free agents from last year's squad, while David Ross rode off into the sunset in retirement and Jorge Soler was shipped to the Kansas City Royals in a winter meetings trade.
That leaves the club with some important depth-chart decisions to make this spring as they prepare for the upcoming season.
Ahead is an early look at how said depth chart might unfold, including projected starters at each position, the "next man up" should injury strike, further depth options at each position and an overview of the prospects that are poised to make an impact in 2017.
Think of this as a state of the franchise roughly one month from the start of spring training.
Starter: Willson Contreras
Backup: Miguel Montero
Depth: Victor Caratini (R), Carlos Corporan, Taylor Davis (R), Kyle Schwarber, Ali Solis
The retirement of David Ross means the Cubs will likely return to a more conventional two-catcher roster, though a healthy Kyle Schwarber could see a handful of starts behind the plate.
Willson Contreras will do the heavy lifting after an impressive rookie season.
The 24-year-old hit .282/.357/.488 with 14 doubles, 12 home runs and 35 RBI in 283 plate appearances, then provided a spark in the postseason with two doubles, one home run and five RBI.
His receiving skills remain a work in progress, but he showed off a cannon arm in throwing out 37 percent of base stealers and graded out as an above-average pitch framer, per Stat Corner.
Backing him up will be high-priced veteran Miguel Montero, who is set to earn $14 million in the final year of his contract.
The 33-year-old was relegated to a part-time role last season and voiced his displeasure with his diminishing playing time shortly after the team wrapped up the World Series title.
"It was different for me," Montero told the Waddle and Silvy Show on ESPN 1000 (via ESPN.com). "It was a different emotion because I didn't get a chance to play. I was a little disappointed, to be honest, because I felt like I did a good job in the regular season but was left out a little bit. It made me feel a little like not important or maybe not as good to be in this lineup."
He has his pride, but a .216/.327/.357 batting line and abysmal 11 percent caught-stealing rate during the regular season really made starting Ross and Contreras in the postseason a no-brainer.
Montero will likely continue to serve as the personal catcher to Jake Arrieta after catching 20 of his 32 starts in 2016. He remains one of the game's best pitch framers, and he's still capable of crushing a mistake.
Carlos Corporan and Ali Solis both have MLB experience and were added as minor league depth, filling the spot occupied by Tim Federowicz a year ago.
Starter: Anthony Rizzo
Next Man Up: Kris Bryant
Depth: Victor Caratini (R), Taylor Davis (R), Tommy La Stella
Anthony Rizzo played 155 games a year ago and 160 games in 2015. Barring an injury, he'll play nearly every game at first base once again this coming season.
The 27-year-old is one of the game's elite run producers and a legitimate MVP candidate after finishing fourth in the voting a year ago when he posted a .928 OPS with 32 home runs and 109 RBI.
Kris Bryant would be the next man up at first base if Rizzo were to miss time, with Javier Baez sliding in as the everyday third baseman.
Starter: Ben Zobrist
Next Man Up: Javier Baez
Depth: Jeimer Candelario (R), Munenori Kawasaki, Tommy La Stella, Jemile Weeks, Chesny Young (R)
Fresh off a brilliant postseason that included World Series MVP honors, Ben Zobrist will be back at second base for the second season of a four-year, $56 million deal he signed last winter.
Zobrist played primarily left field in the postseason with the slick-fielding Baez supplanting him at second, and at some point in the near future, that figures to become a permanent move.
For the time being, it appears Baez will remain in a super utility role, and Zobrist will see the bulk of his playing time at second base once again.
An All-Star for the third time in 2016, Zobrist posted an .831 OPS with 31 doubles, 18 home runs and 76 RBI while tallying more walks (96) than strikeouts (82).
Starter: Addison Russell
Next Man Up: Javier Baez
Depth: Munenori Kawasaki, Chesny Young (R)
After breaking into the majors as a second baseman, Addison Russell eventually returned to his natural position of shortstop midway through the 2015 season, and he was brilliant in his first full year there in 2016.
Russell tied for the lead among MLB shortstops with 19 defensive runs saved. He also made the most of hitting primarily out of the No. 5 spot in a stacked lineup, driving in 95 runs while posting a .738 OPS that included 25 doubles and 21 home runs.
Baez is the primary backup here as well, and he's a Gold Glove-caliber defender in his own right who would be the everyday shortstop on a number of teams.
Starter: Kris Bryant
Next Man Up: Javier Baez
Depth: Jeimer Candelario (R), Munenori Kawasaki, Tommy La Stella, Chesny Young (R)
Kris Bryant played all over the diamond during his 2016 MVP campaign, but third base remains his primary base of operations.
There was some debate whether Bryant would be able to stay at third base long-term during his time in the minors, but he's been a pleasant surprise with the glove to this point in his career with 7 DRS and a 6.4 UZR/150 at the hot corner.
That's on top of his monster offensive numbers as he posted a .939 OPS with 35 doubles, 39 home runs and 102 RBI en route to a 7.7 WAR.
Once again, Baez is next in line here and there will no doubt be some games this coming season—particularly against tough left-handed pitching—where Baez plays third and Bryant shifts to a corner outfield spot.
Starter: Kyle Schwarber
Next Man Up: Ben Zobrist
Depth: Jacob Hannemann (R), Matt Szczur, Mark Zagunis (R)
All the questions about whether Kyle Schwarber can handle left field defensively remain after he made it just three games into the 2016 season before suffering a regular-season-ending knee injury.
There are no questions about his bat, though.
Despite being sidelined for the better part of six months, Schwarber jumped smack into the middle of a World Series and went 7-for-17 to give the Cubs a huge spark offensively.
Assuming his knee holds up and he sees a full slate of at-bats, a 30-homer season is a very real possibility, even if he's used sparingly against left-handed pitching.
Expect to see Ben Zobrist in left field and Javier Baez on second more times than not when there's a southpaw on the hill.
Starter: Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay
Next Man Up: Jason Heyward
Depth: Matt Szczur
All-Star and table-setter Dexter Fowler was by far the biggest loss of the offseason for the Cubs, as he joined the rival St. Louis Cardinals on a five-year, $82.5 million deal.
Replacing him will be a platoon of 2012 first-round pick Albert Almora Jr. and free-agent signing Jon Jay.
Almora Jr. provided the club with elite defense in limited action, tallying 3 DRS and a 23.7 UZR/150 in 237 innings in the outfield. There's plenty of projection left in his hit and power tools, and he held his own as a rookie with a .277/.308/.455 line over 117 plate appearances.
As for Jay, he brings strong on-base skills (.352 career OBP), decent gap power and average defense in center field. He's a good insurance policy for Almora Jr. and should have no problem living up to his one-year, $8 million contract.
Fourth outfielder Matt Szczur is a solid defender at all three outfield positions, and he ranked fifth in the majors and tops on the team with 12 pinch hits in 2016.
Starter: Jason Heyward
Next Man Up: Ben Zobrist
Depth: Jacob Hannemann (R), Matt Szczur, Mark Zagunis (R)
While Jason Heyward played his usual elite defense in right field, it's tough to call his first season with the Cubs anything but a disappointment.
The 27-year-old took home his third consecutive Gold Glove and finished with a 1.5 WAR, but his offensive game cratered as he hit just .230/.306/.325 with 35 extra-base hits in 592 plate appearances.
As he looks to live up to his massive eight-year, $184 million contract, he's already hard at work retooling his swing this offseason.
Given his defense, even average production at the plate makes him a top-tier talent, and it's fair to say he has nowhere to go but up after his dismal debut.
Even if his bat recovers, there's a good chance Heyward will continue to sit against quality left-handed pitching as he boasts a .227 average and .650 OPS in his career against southpaws.
Rotation: Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, Mike Montgomery
Next Man Up: Rob Zastryzny
Depth: Aaron Brooks, Jake Buchanan, Pierce Johnson (R), Ryan Williams (R)
Starting Pitching Overview
The Cubs return four-fifths of a starting staff that paced the league in starter's ERA (2.96), WHIP (1.07), opponent's average (.213) and quality starts (100).
The three-headed monster of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta will again stack up to any rotation trio in baseball.
Lester (19-5, 2.44 ERA, 197 K) and Hendricks (16-8, 2.13 ERA, 170 K) finished second and third in NL Cy Young voting, respectively, while 2015 winner Jake Arrieta (18-8, 3.10 ERA, 190 K) came in ninth in the balloting.
Arrieta, 30, has seen his name in the news plenty this offseason as the team continues to mull a possible extension ahead of his final year of arbitration eligibility.
MLB Trade Rumors projected a $16.8 million salary for Arrieta in 2017, and agent Scott Boras has indicated that the two sides will likely discuss a long-term deal when they exchange arbitration figures later this month, per Jesse Rogers of ESPN.com.
Veteran John Lackey (11-8, 3.35 ERA, 180 K) will again fill the No. 4 starter spot after turning in a successful first season with the team. He landed a two-year, $32 million deal last winter.
The lone departure from the staff is Jason Hammel.
The Cubs declined a $12 million team option on the veteran that was treated like a player option, and he's still searching for a new home in free agency.
Assuming no other starter is signed, lefty Mike Montgomery will move into the rotation as his replacement after pitching primarily out of the bullpen last season.
The 27-year-old made seven starts along with 42 relief appearances, going 1-1 with a 3.28 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and two quality starts in the starter's role.
Rookie Rob Zastryzyny was a pleasant surprise as a rookie, posting a 1.13 ERA with 17 strikeouts in 16 innings over eight appearances. That included his first career start when he allowed two hits and one unearned run in 3.2 innings.
He looks like the next man up, with depth arms Aaron Brooks (10 career starts, 8.38 ERA) and David Buchanan (35 career starts, 5.01 ERA) both boasting MLB experience but little in the way of success.
Bullpen Locks: Wade Davis, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Koji Uehara
On the Bubble: Justin Grimm
Further Depth: Corey Black (R), Jake Buchanan, Maikel Cleto, Conor Mullee, Felix Pena (R), Fernando Rodriguez, Jose Rosario (R)
Offseason additions Wade Davis and Koji Uehara will join Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. to give the Cubs plenty of quality options from the right side in the bullpen.
Rondon was lights out in the closer's role before the team acquired Aroldis Chapman, but he wasn't himself down the stretch after rushing back from a triceps strain. With an offseason of rest, he could return to being a dangerous weapon in the late innings.
Meanwhile, it was Carl Edwards Jr. who emerged as a key setup option in the playoffs after posting a 3.75 ERA, 0.81 WHIP and 52 strikeouts in 36 innings during the regular season.
Justin Grimm has a minor league option remaining so he could find himself on the roster bubble if someone like rookie Felix Pena or non-roster invitee Fernando Rodriguez puts together a strong spring.
Bullpen Locks: Brian Duensing
On the Bubble: Caleb Smith (R)
Further Depth: Gerardo Concepcion (R), Jack Leathersich, Daniel Moskos, David Rollins
This might be the biggest weakness on the Cubs roster right now.
With Chapman and Travis Wood departing in free agency and Mike Montgomery moving to the rotation, the team is lacking a lefty reliever they can lean on in high-leverage situations.
Veteran Brian Duensing looks like a safe bet to earn a roster spot after signing a one-year, $2 million deal, but he's been average at best during an eight-year career, sporting a 4.13 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in 368 career appearances.
The wild card is Rule 5 pick Caleb Smith.
The 25-year-old pitched to a 3.96 ERA with 70 strikeouts in 63.2 innings for the Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees last year, and he'll be given every chance to win a spot.
The Cubs will likely open the season with eight relievers, per Jesse Rogers of ESPN.com, so it looks like there will be two spots up for grabs in the bullpen this spring.
The Next Wave
The Cubs have welcomed a number of impressive young players to the MLB ranks over the past few seasons, and they still have plenty of talent in the pipeline with a group that ranked No. 14 in Bleacher Report's latest farm system rankings.
Here's a quick look at a handful of prospects who could make an impact and shake up depth charts in 2017:
RP Corey Black
Corey Black was acquired from the New York Yankees back in 2013 in the deal that officially ended the Alfonso Soriano era in Chicago.
The 25-year-old has a big arm with a fastball that touches 99 and a wipeout slider.
Control issues have plagued him throughout his career, though.
Last season, he posted an impressive 10.5 K/9 between Double-A and Triple-A, but it was accompanied by a 6.1 BB/9 rate that led to a 1.59 WHIP.
He finished 2016 on a high note with a brilliant showing in the Puerto Rican Winter League, nailing down 12 saves in 13 chances and posting a 0.43 ERA and 0.86 WHIP with a 17-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 21 innings of work.
IF Jeimer Candelario
Jeimer Candelario has little left to prove in the minors after hitting .333/.417/.542 over 309 plate appearances in Triple-A last season.
"Candelario has a fluid swing and makes consistent contact from both sides of the plate. He understands the strike zone and could develop into a solid hitter for both average and power," wrote MLB.com's Prospect Watch.
The 23-year-old is capable of playing second and third base at the next level, and it's not out of the question to think the switch-hitter could supplant Tommy La Stella in the utility infield role.
He went 1-for-11 with two walks and five strikeouts in five games with the MLB squad last season.
SP/RP Pierce Johnson
Once the top starting pitching prospect in the Cubs' system, Pierce Johnson's future may lie in the bullpen.
He still has the upside of a middle-of-the-rotation starter and the three-pitch repertoire to succeed in a starting role, but injuries and ineffectiveness in the upper levels of the minors have clouded his future.
The 25-year-old had some fairly significant starter/reliever splits in 2016:
- Starter: 11 GS, 1-6, 7.75 ERA, 1.89 WHIP, 30 BB, 40 K, 40.2 IP
- Reliever: 11 G, 3-0, 3.22 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 13 BB, 35 K, 22.1 IP
If he makes a full-time move to the bullpen in 2017, he could be in Chicago by midseason.
RP Felix Pena
Felix Pena showed some intriguing upside in a two-month audition with the Cubs last season.
The 26-year-old made his MLB debut on Aug. 19 and posted a 4.00 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 13 strikeouts in nine innings of work over 11 appearances.
He boasts the classic mid-90s fastball and plus-slider combination teams look for in late-inning relievers, and his stuff has really played up since moving to the bullpen.
The right-hander may have the best chance of any rookie to break camp with the team.