These 8 Cubs Could Benefit Most from Short Season, Expanded Rosters
Games played on Christmas, minor-league doubleheaders of seven innings apiece, dogs and cats living together. The 2020 MLB season could be mass hysteria. If, that is, there’s a season at all. The league and players have reached an agreement and remain hopeful for a schedule of 140 games or more, though that seems like a pipe dream at best given current trends.
Regardless of how many games are eventually played, the regular season will push well into October and could force a neutral-site World Series around Thanksgiving or, as at least one proposal holds, late December. That could mean playing lots of doubleheaders, perhaps on a weekly basis, in order to compress the timeline as much as possible. Even utilizing the minor league model of trimming two innings from each half of those twin bills would be taxing on pitching staffs.
That means at least temporarily expanding rosters beyond 26 and relaxing the rules on the 13-pitcher maximum that was supposed to have been in place this season. Exactly how many total players and pitchers would be allowed isn’t known, but there are a few Cubs who figure to benefit should this all come to pass.
Jason Kipnis was already expected to earn a roster spot, but he becomes a near lock if more room is created. His decreased production over the last few years might be mitigated by playing him in more of a platoon role against right-handed pitchers, and more doubleheaders could mean more starts in one half or the other.
Nico Hoerner might have been sent to Triple-A in order to play every day had the season continued uninterrupted. While that could still be the case, needing all hands on deck in what figures to be more of a sprint than a marathon might have the Cubs rolling with the rookie as the starting second baseman. The key here is that Hoerner has to get the lion’s share of the reps at second and as backup to Javy Báez at short.
Brandon Morrow hasn’t been able to stay healthy over most of the last two years and there’s no guarantee the long layoff fixes that. However, another two months off and a bigger bullpen might be just the kind of rehab he needs to get him back to some semblance of production.
Dakota Mekkes struggled a bit last season at Triple-A after dominating at each previous level, but he was touching 96 mph early in spring and has been working to tighten up his slider. If he can shape that breaking ball into more of a swing-and-miss pitch, his deceptive delivery could really play. And with more bullpen spots, the Cubs might see fit to let Mekkes have a go at it in Chicago.
Just a year after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer following his Padres physical, Brad Wieck was delayed by an atrial flutter discovered during a pre-camp checkup. The issue was corrected with an ablation procedure performed via a catheter inserted near Wieck’s groin, so he had to wait for that to heal before getting back on the mound. He would have missed the start of the season as a result, but will now be good to go once everything reboots.
Josh Phegley had a pretty good shot at breaking camp because David Ross likes the idea of carrying three catchers, so adding a few more spots make him close to a lock. As with the need for more pitchers in the event of weekly doubleheaders, having an extra catcher will be almost a necessity. Phegley has a good deal of experience and can serve as a mentor to both Willson Contreras and Victor Caratini, something Ross is quite familiar with.
Rex Brothers had been pitching really well and was putting together a very solid case to be the second lefty in the bullpen with Kyle Ryan. The veteran was still among the 39 players left in camp after the most recent round of cuts — of which Mekkes was a victim — and seems like a very strong candidate should the staff increase to 15 pitchers or more.
Ian Miller would have been my pick to join the big club under normal circumstances, so he seems like a perfect fit for a bigger roster. Though he’s a little redundant in the outfield, Miller’s elite speed gives the Cubs a dimension they lack otherwise. Rather than waiting for September as they have in the past, the extenuating circumstances could hasten such strategic plays and give Miller a chance to impact the season from the (delayed) start.
Now, there is a slight issue with this group that some of you may have noticed: Only Hoerner and Wieck are already on the 40-man roster. Five of the others were brought in on minor-league deals and Mekkes was not rostered ahead of the Rule 5 Draft, so the Cubs would have to displace some other players in order to make these moves.
There’s also the matter of the competitive balance tax the team has apparently been trying to avoid, since rostering these players would lock in higher salary figures. Unless the league and union agree to suspend CBT penalties for 2020, finances may factor heavily in some of these choices. And who knows what happens once “spring training” resumes and we see how every reacts to the unexpected time off.
Rosters won’t have to be finalized for quite some time, though, so we’re unlikely to find anything out for certain until at least May or even June.