I should probably say right out of the gate that pretty much everyone could end up losing depending on how the 2020 season unfolds. Or doesn’t unfold, as the case may be. MLB has presented the players union with proposals on health protocols and financial projections, both of which are going to have to be worked through before the game can return. Assuming things finally get going, the timing could impact each player very differently.
With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at 10 Cubs players — or hopeful players, as the case may be for some of them — whose respective futures should be improved or hampered by the truncated season. Since we could probably all use a little more positivity in our lives, let’s go with the winners first.
A surprise candidate for the 26-roster through the early weeks of camp, Miller’s speed is a big bonus for a team generally lacking that dimension over the last few seasons. If the Cubs indeed get four additional roster spots, Miller figures to be among the choices. The universal DH gives a little more flexibility as well because his athleticism makes him a great fit for late-inning defensive switches.
Initially projected to open the season at Triple-A in order to get more regular reps and hone his plate approach, Hoerner is another player who figures to be aided by the expanded roster. Even though the Cubs are following the Brewers’ plan by carrying 17 second basemen, Hoerner remains the most viable backup to Javy Báez at short. And since there’s probably not going to be a minor-league season, there’s nowhere for him to further his development as the Cubs had hoped.
Could the extended delay be Morrow’s opportunity to finally be healthy enough to pitch again? He seems to think so, or at least he did when the shutdown was still somewhat fresh. If MLB is able to stick to its plan to return in early July and if Morrow can take the mound, it’ll be his first action for the Cubs in almost exactly two years. Given that he’ll probably be willing to empty the tank at a time when other pitchers may be brought along with great caution, he could factor heavily in the late innings.
The fifth rotation spot was Tyler Chatwood’s as of the time camp shut down, but Mills has been staying in shape and should be primed to maintain a role as long man or spot starter. Six-man rotations may be a way of life for at least the early portion of the rebooted season, with piggyback starts perhaps becoming a regular feature as well. Either way, Mills figures to have an increased role in 2020.
The big lefty got a late start due to a heart ablation procedure to correct an atrial flutter discovered during a routine physical, but now he should be back on the same timetable as everyone else. He figures to be an important member of the bullpen, particularly as a reverse-split guy with the DH in play.
We move on the losers, which is a really subjective term and one that could change depending on how everything shakes out.
While it could be argued that Lester will be able to go all-out in a shortened season, I’m looking at this in more as a big-picture deal. The stalwart southpaw doesn’t get to really revel in what figures to be his last season in Chicago, nor can he do much to build his value for another deal should he want to keep pitching.
Lester admittedly shifted back to offseason mode and might not be ready to go right away even after a rebooted spring training.
“If we’re doing a three-week thing, you would have to be ready to throw to hitters and then maybe do that three to four times and then jump into a game,” Lester told MLB Network recently. “So you’re looking at three or four starts [after that before] I think you’d be kind of primed and ready.
“That’s just me personally,” he added. “I know other guys are probably still throwing to hitters or doing their thing. I physically can’t do that right now. So I feel it would take me just a tick longer, maybe one more start than let’s say a [Tyler] Chatwood or a [Jose] Quintana.”
The irony of the potential for a lost season is that the Cubs will lose the year of control they “won” from Bryant in the service-time grievance that finally concluded this spring. Rather than come out a winner, however, Bryant could be faced with limited ability to build his value for a big arbitration raise in 2021. Even worse for him, the money might not be there in free agency due to the financial strain, real or otherwise, placed on the game by the prolonged shutdown.
The Cubs have shown a reluctance to spend over the past two offseasons and may not have a chance to reset their luxury tax penalty status for next season, thereby ensuring a third consecutive quiet offseason. Even if the season is played and the Cubs are somehow able to get under the CBT threshold, their projected losses of $200 million or so might still pull the rug from beneath baseball operations.
Then you factor in the number of different players on the team coming due for extensions and the Cubs may not be willing or able to sign Bryant long-term. The big question for Bryant at that point will be whether the financial situation across the league has solidified enough to allow at least one other team to produce a worthwhile offer for him. We can’t discount the collective bargaining agreement in this either, as the current labor contract will expire in conjunction with Bryant’s rookie deal.
On the other hand, maybe Bryant is a big beneficiary of a new CBA and a team or two with a desire to jump the market and land a superstar. Maybe the Cubs are one of those teams.
Steven Souza Jr.
This one could just as easily have gone in the earlier section, what with Souza’s potential to spell Jason Heyward in right and handle the other corner when Kyle Schwarber serves as DH. At the same time, this long layoff for a guy who’s already missed a lot of time to injury over the previous two seasons can’t be good when it comes to shaking off the rust.
You probably already forgot that Brothers was even in camp in the first place, but he was having a strong spring and had potential to break camp with the Cubs as another bullpen lefty in addition to Kyle Ryan. Even if it was a long shot for little more than a temporary spot with Wieck rehabbing, it would have been a chance to build his value for another team at the very least. That may have all but disappeared with the longer layoff giving other guys time to get healthy.
It’s kind of surprising that Descalso is still around after last year’s abysmal performance, though his veteran leadership gives him the kind of intrinsic value the Cubs have always coveted. That said, he’s sitting behind Hoerner, Jason Kipnis, and David Bote in terms of a utility infield role and he did nothing during spring training to indicate he’d bounced back from last season.
With the short campaign making each game that much more important, it’s hard to see how the club can justify carrying someone whose only significant contribution is as a good dude in the clubhouse. What’s more, the social-distancing protocols could actually negate some of the chemistry Descalso brings. His money may be guaranteed, his spot isn’t.
There are several other players we could list in either category, with potential for a 20-man taxi squad really opening the door to guys like Zack Short and Trent Giambrone among others. But will younger players have an advantage due to their ability to prepare physically more quickly or will experience win the day following a long layoff? The answer could be different based on the individual, of course, so here’s to hoping we get a chance to find out one way or the other this summer.