As of this post, the Cubs have 47 players on their 40-man roster. A handful of those players are currently on the 60-Day IL and don’t count towards the total, but that changes as soon as the World Series ends. Five days later, eight of those become free agents. If you’re keeping score at home, that leaves them at 39 players and means the new front office will have a lot of decisions to make.
They are going to have to trim that roster down to make room for anywhere from 5-7 free agents plus a few prospects who they are going to protect from the Rule 5 Draft on December 10. Whether that happens on time or not due to the expiration of the CBA nine days earlier, the deadline to protect those prospects is November 19 and there’s really only one lock from among a handful of players the Cubs will have to consider. That lock is Nelson Velazquez.
Velazquez began the season on the IL due to tonsillitis, then tore up the High-A Central for South Bend upon his return. In 69 games, he cranked out 12 dingers with 46 RBI while hitting .261 with a .321 OBP. Upon being promoted to Tennessee on August 4, he hit .290 with a .358 OBP while hitting eight homers and driving in 27 runs over 34 games.
The Cubs thought highly enough of Velazquez to send to the Arizona Fall League, where he was hitting .370 with a 1.130 OPS at the time of this post. He’s pretty much sewn up his spot and may have earned himself an assignment to Triple-A Iowa for next season.
Nelson Velazquez (@Cubs ) continues his incredible start at the Arizona Fall League. With one hit already on the night, Velazquez drives this RBI single to left to pad the Solar Sox lead. He’s is now hitting north of .350. 🏜🌵☀️@NBCSChicago pic.twitter.com/RomDcEEc5J
— MLB's Arizona Fall League (@MLBazFallLeague) October 24, 2021
One of the complicating factors in figuring out the rest of the 40-man roster is that several of the players the Cubs acquired at the trade deadline are already on it. That includes three players who were only at High-A South Bend: Alexander Canario, Alexander Vizcaino, and Anderson Espinoza. The latter pitched well after a bump up to Double-A Tennessee for a few starts and might be able to help the big league club at some point next year. Canario and Vizcaino, however, are probably years away.
Add in Miguel Amaya, Brailyn Marquez, and Chris Morel, and you’ve got six spots for guys who will start the 2022 season in the minors. While it might seem like that makes decisions easier, the Cubs have very limited room remaining for roughly 60 players who will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. That list includes righty reliever Ethan Roberts, a Cubs Insider favorite, and lefty reliever Brendon Little, who was the Cubs’ top pick in 2017.
If the Cubs choose to clean house to get the roster down to 30-32, which is entirely possible given the fresh voices in the front office and the need to fill out the MLB roster, they’ll have more room to add prospects. Roberts and Little would be at the top of the list, along with starter Cam Sanders and reliever Brandon Hughes. That said, adding five prospects would be pretty stunning because it would limit big-league additions.
A lot of it comes down to how worried the Cubs are that another team would pluck those unprotected players away. Sanders is a guy with a very fluid and relaxed arm action whose stuff could tick up out of the ‘pen, possibly pushing his 95 mph to 97 or higher. Yeah, I can see a team looking to use him in a relief role in order to keep him on the active roster.
Cam Sanders wasn’t as dominant as game 1, but he showcased some big breakers and ⚔️. If you haven’t gotten on the Cam Sanders bandwagon, you better hurry up. pic.twitter.com/3FIQ2elASR
— Greg Zumach (@IvyFutures) May 13, 2021
Hughes broke in with the Cubs as an outfielder and has only been pitching for less than two seasons. He did very well at both South Bend and Tennessee as he really learns to pitch, plus he added a slider that is just lethal. That’s really valuable from a southpaw.
This is a good development by Brandon Hughes. Nice little slider. The hitter did not stand a chance pic.twitter.com/tdUBFtZoBK
— Todd ⚾️🐻🦌 (@CubsCentral08) July 5, 2021
Further complicating all of this is the uncertainty of an offseason that may feature a record number of qualifying offers in addition to a work stoppage. If the Cubs roll the dice and protect only Velazquez, we could see several other prospects pulled away as teams look to supplement their own rosters on the cheap. I am leaning toward the Cubs protecting Velazquez, Sanders, and Hughes as of today, but those thoughts will probably change tomorrow.
I might be better off waiting to see how many guys the Cubs actually get down to before making a prediction.