MESA, Ariz. — For the most part, there hasn’t been much drama for the Cubs this spring training. Seiya Suzuki’s oblique injury isn’t as bad as initially thought. The team has avoided a worst-case scenario there and their star right fielder appears to be inching closer to an early or mid-April return.
When the most troubling news is Keegan Thompson searching for velocity with slight mechanical adjustments and lefty reliever Brandon Hughes dealing with a minor left knee situation, it’s been a solid spring.
So who are the 26 players expected to be on the roster come Thursday at Wrigley Field? It’s not set in stone yet, but it’s getting close. The rotation is locked in — Hayden Wesneski was officially named the fifth starter on Saturday, though the decision had been close to made weeks ago — the bullpen is nearly there, and the position player group is close, with a couple of surprises potentially arriving for Opening Day.
Here’s a look at where things stand early this week ahead of final decisions.
Locks: Yan Gomes and Tucker Barnhart, Luis Torrens
Everyone knew that barring injury, Gomes and Barnhart would be here. But multiple sources indicated that Torrens would likely be on the team, which comes as a bit of a surprise. There are a couple of factors at play in this decision. The Cubs didn’t want to lose Torrens’ bat and they see him as solid, if unspectacular, defensively. If he weren’t to make the team, Torrens would likely opt out of his contract, meaning the Cubs would lose a valuable third catcher.
Despite a rough season at the plate in 2022, Torrens has looked strong offensively this spring and in previous seasons. Having him on the roster would allow manager David Ross to feel comfortable pinch-hitting for Tucker Barnhart in big moments and still allow the 35-year-old Yan Gomes to have full days off.
Locks: Dansby Swanson, Nico Hoerner, Eric Hosmer, Trey Mancini, Patrick Wisdom, Edwin Ríos, Nick Madrigal, Ian Happ and Cody Bellinger, Miles Mastrobuoni
Injured list: Seiya Suzuki
Out: Mike Tauchman, Christopher Morel, Zach McKinstry (traded to the Tigers for RHP Carlos Guzman on Monday)
Let’s lump the infield and outfield together because it’s all connected in how this roster is structured.
Suzuki’s injury not being serious means Tauchman likely falls short of making the team, since he won’t be needed as long as once believed. With Torrens needing a 40-man spot and likely one more for the bullpen — more on that below — it just makes keeping Tauchman more difficult. The only reason he’s listed as on the fence is if something odd happens over the next couple days, but don’t expect him to be in Chicago Thursday.
Right now, third base looks like a mix of Wisdom, Ríos and Madrigal. The initial plan appears to be less of a straight platoon and more based on the type of pitcher they’re facing. Madrigal would be in the lineup against starters with great swing-and-miss stuff because in that scenario a contact-oriented bat would be more advantageous. Wisdom will get soft-tossing lefties and Ríos the righties.
But that won’t mean Wisdom and Ríos only play in those situations. Both can play first and will get time at DH. Wisdom will also play some right field, as could Mancini. However, Mancini probably won’t get a large amount of time in the outfield because the team doesn’t want to risk injury or have him wear down at a position that’s not viewed as a strength for him. There was some debate about whether Ríos’ strong spring makes Hosmer redundant, especially with his lack of versatility. It never got to the point that he was actually looked at as not making the team out of spring, but the leash could be short there if he struggles out of the gate and the Cubs need a roster spot.
The final position player spot appears to be a debate between Mastrobuoni, Morel and McKinstry. That would be how they’re ranked as far as the likelihood of making the team. McKinstry can’t handle right field, which is the type of versatility the Cubs will need early in the season while Suzuki is on the mend. Morel has looked great at the plate, but there is also a sentiment that he should be playing every day and that won’t happen if he’s with the big-league club.
Mastrobuoni can handle right and has also looked good at the plate this spring and during the WBC. This one seems to be coming down to the wire. Mastrobuoni may have a slight edge but this could certainly change over the coming days of debate. With no options left, McKinstry would be designated for assignment or traded, which would open up a spot for Torrens.
Locks: Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele, Jameson Taillon, Drew Smyly and Hayden Wesneski
IL: Kyle Hendricks
No debates here. That’s the order of the rotation to open the season as well. Adrian Sampson has already been optioned to Triple A and his 40-man spot is safe for now. While the Cubs like their pitching depth, they would prefer to let Caleb Kilian continue to work at Triple A early in the year. The hope beyond that is the talented staff at Double A, which includes Jordan Wicks, Ben Brown and Daniel Palencia, will continue to grow this year and one or more will be ready by July to be the type of depth piece for the rotation that Wesneski and Javier Assad turned out to be in last season’s second half.
Locks: Michael Fulmer, Brad Boxberger, Adbert Alzolay, Julian Merryweather, Javier Assad, Michael Rucker
Likely: Keegan Thompson, Mark Leiter Jr.
Likely IL: Hughes
On the fence: Rowan Wick, Ryan Borucki, Tyler Duffey
Out: Roenis Elías and Anthony Kay
There are six spots locked up, meaning two are up for grabs. If Thompson makes the team, then it’s just one spot left. Momentum is growing that Thompson has looked good enough in his last two outings that he could make the team. He was sitting consistently 92 mph on Sunday and one source confirmed the last two outings saw some 92.9 mph in there too.
While the velocity has been a concern, he’s actually been fine otherwise. His slider has looked sharp and he hasn’t given up much hard contact at all. Even with all the focus on what he wasn’t doing, Thompson worked eight innings this spring, gave up just two hits, struck out seven and walked two. Oh, and most importantly he allowed a total of zero runs.
Still, he isn’t a lock. Maybe they decide a week or two in Iowa is what makes the most sense. But that would be an extremely cautious approach and an unlikely outcome. Hughes is likely starting the season on the IL, but Monday’s outing could change that mindset if he looks healthy and locked in.
If either Thompson or Hughes isn’t on the roster, there appears to be a battle between Leiter, Borucki and Duffey brewing. Wick’s status appears rocky in order to make room on the 40-man. Leiter has been so good this spring — combine that with his tremendous performance out of the bullpen last summer and he probably has the edge. But there is one school of thought that just having a lefty in the bullpen (assuming Hughes starts the year on the IL) is important, even if the righty is as effective at getting out lefties.
Still, the Cubs would lose Leiter if he doesn’t make the team out of camp because he would absolutely opt for free agency rather than take an assignment to Iowa. Borucki, on the other hand, would be quality, left-handed depth at Triple A. He’s impressed this spring — at one point Kay was probably ahead of him, but he has reverse splits and then Borucki found his rhythm and moved ahead in the competition. If Borucki can continue to stay effective at Triple A, he could have a leg up on the competition when a call-up for the bullpen will surely be needed at some point this summer.
Hughes was scheduled to pitch in Monday’s Cactus League game, but instead threw a bullpen Monday morning in Mesa. This would allow the Cubs to backdate an IL stint to start the season, which appears to be the likely course at the moment. Leiter has the clear edge to grab that final bullpen spot.
(Photo of Mike Tauchman, Cody Bellinger and Christopher Morel: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)