The opening of a new baseball season closed out uneventful off-season for the Cubs franchise. Since the end of 2018, fans of the Cubs were left with a number of incredulous story lines. First there was the suspension of their star shortstop. Next was the Cubs‘ general lack of involvement in the the trade and free agency market. Finally, the Cubs then closed out their spring by sending a former first-round pick back to the minor leagues.
Yet through it all, the Cubs may be better prepared for the long haul of the 2019 season. As a result of these and other serendipitous events, the Cubs may have figured out how to “squeeze the tube at both ends” and improve their franchise’s depth.
The Process Begins
Oddly enough, the process may have started as early as June of 2018 with the MLB Draft. Headlined by first round pick Nico Hoerner, 15 selections along with undrafted free agent Grant Fennell are now part of full-season minor league rosters.
As the Cubs broke training camp, infielder Hoerner has been given accelerated development by opening at Double-A Tennesse. In addition, the Cubs have also “pole-vaulted” several other 2018 selections over Low-A South Bend. Begining the year with Advanced-A Myrtle Beach are:
- RHP Paul Richan (2nd Round)
- OF Jimmy Herron (3rd Round)
- 3B/1B Luke Reynolds (10th round)
- Utility player Grant Fennell (Undrafted Free Agent)
Likewise, the SB Cubs received a large benefit of the draft. In making the final assignments, 11 players of their 25 man roster came to the organization last June. In the forefront is 19-year old second-round selection in OF Cole Roederer. Roederer became the first Cubs prospect drafted out of high school to make a full-season roster in his first full season in twenty years. Joining Roederer are:
- RHP Ethan Roberts (4th Round)
- INF Andy Weber (5th Round)
- OF D.J. Artis (7th Round)
- RHP’s Zach Mort (8th Round), Derek Casey (9th), Riley Thompson (11th), Cam Sanders (12th), and Riley McCauley (14th)
- 1B Tyler Durna (15th Round)
- INF Levi Jordan (29th Round)
The willingness to push this amount of draftees up through the system is unprecedented by this front office. Ordinarily, other than for a small handful of players, the Cubs have been very deliberate, almost to the point of being clunky, in level assignment. For the most part, it was obvious that the Cubs are reacting to the overall lack of talent present in the 2018 system.
The Russell Dilemma
In the meantime, the Cubs learned shortly after their 2018 season ended that MLB was suspending SS Addison Russell for 40 games. With a player violating the MLB domestic violence policy, many teams have dealt with this by severing ties with the player. However, the Cubs were not in position to make such decisions.
Over the past few seasons, the Cubs have included their deep shortstop reserve in trades to help the parent club. After dealing away Gleyber Torres, Isaac Paredes, and Andruw Monasterio, the Cubs had little in place to allow Russell to depart.
The situation creates a future dilemma as Russell will be capable of resuming play toward the end of April. Reinstatement for Russell will be coming in early May. At that point, the Cubs will be making a decision as to which player’s roster spot is sacrificed.
The one good consequence is the Cubs assigning infield prospects Zack Short and Trent Giambrone to Triple-A Iowa. In this case, it mostly likely was done for emergency purposes, such as unforeseen injuries. For those who don’t follow the Cubs, this again is an unprecedented move. As a rule, the Cubs front office has been very wary of prospects starting the season at Triple-A (see Jeimer Candelario and Billy McKinney).
In addition to those moves, the Cubs shocked their followers by demoting OF Ian Happ prior to the opener. In conjunction with this transaction, the Cubs promoted OF Mark Zagunis to the opening day roster. Subsequently, the Cubs gave utility player David Bote a long term contact that will extend him past arbitration.
Both Bote and Zagunis are prime candidates to be sent down once Russell is reinstated. However, it is less clear who makes the trip to Iowa if Happ makes the improvements the front office wants. Whatever the case, moving all four of these players up-and-down as well as in-and-out my help keep the major league roster fresh.
Whither the Bullpen?
The Cubs went a different way this off-season in addressing bullpen concerns. For the most part, the Cubs signed practically any street free agent that could lift their arm prior to training camp. Subsequently, the fight for a spot in the pen led to the Cubs designating LHP Brian Duensing for assignment. Furthermore, the Cubs sent RHP Carl Edwards Jr. to Iowa and LHP Mike Montgomery to the injured list a week after the season began.
In this case, the Cubs may be creating depth by using their volume to continually swap out pitchers to discover the “hot hand””. Additionally, this could also provide the Cubs the luxury of bringing up prospects such as James Norwood, Dillon Maples, and Dakota Mekkes when the timing is favorable.
The Final Analysis
In the end, any moves are reliant to how the players perform. While it could be a plan to make the best out of what they have, it does seem very Machiavellian for baseball. For now, the proof will be in how the season unfolds.
Born and raised on Chicago's Northwest side, Tom is entering his tenth year covering the Cubs minor league system, writing for prestigious sites such as Chicago Cubs Online, Locked On Cubs, and Cubs Den. Over that period, Tom has published interviews with top prospects such as Aramis Ademan, Miguel Amaya, Willson Contreras, Jeimer Candelario, Dylan Cease, Ian Happ, Eloy Jimenez, Cole Roederer, and Gleyber Torres.
Known as "Tom U" across the internet, Tom also has a close working relationship with the front offices of all four of the Cubs' full season minor league teams. A frequent guest of the South Bend Cubs on WSBT radio, Tom has also written monthly articles for the South Bend Cubs' stadium program.