David Ross Offers Early Look at Position Battles, Backup Roles

There isn’t a great deal of intrigue when it comes to the Cubs’ everyday players this season, especially since David Ross already let the air out of the leadoff balloon. Things pretty much fall into place after Kris Bryant leading off and Anthony Rizzo at two, though Ross admitted Thursday that he hasn’t decided what he’ll do at the bottom of the order with the pitcher batting either eighth or ninth.

Far more interesting, at least in terms of what happens over the course of the spring, are the battles for the last few roster spots. Even with the addition of the 26th man this season, the Cubs have far more players than openings and will need to whittle things down before breaking camp. Ross offered a little insight into a few key position and/or depth battles, almost all of which are taking place up the middle of the field.

Ian Happ is the presumptive favorite to be the primary starter in center field, provided the adjustments he showed off late in 2019 can be replicated over a longer period. Though not a natural outfielder by any stretch, his athleticism and versatility make him a near lock. It doesn’t hurt that the other primary candidate for the role, Albert Almora Jr., has done nothing to strengthen his own case over the past two seasons.

David Bote is another lock for the roster, but his role is very much up for grabs. He will continue to get a lot of work at third base and is in the running for the starting spot at second, which could end up being more of a platoon. Jason Kipnis figures to be the lefty half of that duo, with Daniel Descalso providing additional lefty depth at both second and third.

Ross touted the improved fitness of former Brewer Hernán Pérez, who has dropped 10-15 pounds since last season. The 28-year-old is capable of playing all four infield positions and both corner outfield spots to varying degrees of effectiveness, but wields a decidedly below-average bat and would be purely a defensive depth play.

That depth would be reduced by carrying a third catcher, something with which Ross is familiar from his go-round with the Cubs as a player. Joe Maddon made it work with only 25 spots, so the possibility of rostering former White Sox and A’s backstop Josh Phegley has not been ruled out. His bat is on par with Pérez and he’s played only two-thirds of an inning at any position other than catcher, so the only way it makes sense is if Victor Caratini is getting a lot of time at first base.

You’ll note that Nico Hoerner hasn’t come up yet, which is somewhat by design as the odds of him breaking camp with the big club have gotten longer since the end of last season. Descalso’s still around, Kipnis has been added, and the Cubs have been very clear with Hoerner when it comes to what he needs to be working on. Ross named him as one of the options for backup shortstop, but there’s no way Hoerner is heading to Chicago to serve in that role.

Okay, so where does that put things as Cactus League play is about to open? Here’s my quick look at how the roster figures to set up:

Outfield: Happ, Almora, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Steven Souza Jr.
Infield: Bryant, Rizzo, Bote, Javy Báez
Catchers: Caratini, Willson Contreras
Probables: Kipnis, Descalso
Longshots: Pérez, Hoerner, Phegley, Robel Garcia

There’s really nothing controversial there, though I could have followed the lead of MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian and listed Descalso as a lock for a utility role. That’s not as hot a take as the 33-year-old’s awful play last year would indicate, since he’s got a $2.5 million guarantee and brings a measure of veteran leadership to the table. For a Cubs team pinching pennies at every turn, cutting Descalso and converting a minors deal to an MLB payout might not be in the cards.

That could seal the fates of those longshots, since all but Phegley play at least one of the same positions as Descalso. If I may channel the inimitable Patrick Hughes for a moment here, the real turning point may come from one of the infielders in the latter two groups either playing out of his mind or completely falling apart.

Kipnis seems to have a really good shot at the roster, but could definitely play his way out of it. Descalso could do the same. Hoerner or Pérez could tear the cover off the ball and force the issue, though the former would come at the expense of at least one other competitor for that role. Again, if Hoerner is placed on the roster it will be as the everyday second baseman and not to ride the pine and learn the ropes from a distance.

We probably won’t start to get any real clarity in the progress of these little position skirmishes for another couple weeks, but look for clues in the lineups and who goes where for split-squad games. The box scores can only tell us so much, so listen to what Ross and Theo Epstein have to say about the players in question. Maybe you can even conduct an eye test or three.

Feel free to leave your own predictions in the comments below, maybe even with a breakdown of the pitching staff if you’re feeling extra saucy.

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