We have hit that time of year when we put the Cubs roster under a microscope and try to make sense of what we see. Last year about this time we noticed that the Cubs had four catchers on the roster and correctly inferred that at least one of them would likely be traded in the off season. And while the Cubs once again have four catchers on the roster (for now), that’s not what I am looking at today. What stands out for me today is that the Cubs have just five outfielders on their forty man roster.
It isn’t only the number of outfielders that matters here, but who they are. When we put it all together, I think it is safe to say that outfield will be on the Cubs’ shopping list.
First of all, keep in mind that most teams carry five outfielders on their 25 man roster during the season. Just for the sake of normal depth and player development, I’d expect most 40 man rosters to have at least six.
But the Cubs case is odder still. Those five outfielders are: Marlon Byrd, Alfonso Soriano, Tyler Colvin, Tony Campana, and Matt Szczur. There is no way Szczur will open the 2012 season on the 25 man roster. The earliest we can expect him in the majors is late 2013. Right away, we are down to four potentially active outfielders.
But I’m not done yet. As Jordan has mentioned, the Cubs seem more determined than ever to trade Soriano, and there is some interest in the outfielder. If the Cubs eat $40 million or so of his contract, Soriano is actually an attractive option at DH for many American League teams. While we cannot say for sure if a deal for Soriano will actually be struck, there is no doubt the Cubs are shopping him. If they do succeed, then the team is down to three active outfielders.
One of those guys is Tyler Colvin. Colvin might be an everyday outfielder, but thanks to his mismanagement at the hands of Mike Quade, we just don’t know for sure. Heading into 2012 it would be safest to view Colvin as a fourth outfielder. I think there is a good chance he plays his way back into a starting job, but the Cubs can’t assume that.
Tony Campana, if he is on the active roster at all, will certainly be coming off the bench. Campana has one exceptional tool – speed. His batting is mediocre, he does not do well drawing walks, his defense needs work, and his arm is probably below average. I think he might be one of the best pinch runner / fifth outfielder types in the game today, but I would be very surprised if he emerges as a starting outfielder for the Cubs.
Byrd is a much safer commodity, but he is getting older. I don’t think Byrd is a 162 game player anymore. If the Cubs want to him to stay productive all season, they may not want to push him past 120-130 starts.
That’s not much of an outfield.
One player we have not mentioned yet is Brett Jackson. Jackson is generally expected to play regularly for the Cubs next season, but that does not necessarily mean he will be with the team on Opening Day. The Cubs could attempt to delay starting Jackson’s arbitration clock by leaving him in the minors until late May. Not only would this move benefit Jackson by shortening his rookie season and allowing him to come to the majors after he gets hot against Triple A pitching, it would benefit the Cubs by potentially moving back a season the first year he is eligible for arbitration by keeping him out of the Super-Two category. This is actually a fairly likely scenario. If that does in fact happen, the Cubs will have a lot of outfield at bats early in the season to fill.
So, out of the five outfielders on the roster, there is exactly one guy who we can feel confident will be starting on Opening Day: Marlon Byrd. Campana will be on the roster, I think, but as a fifth outfielder. He would be a logical choice to rest Byrd now and then.
Colvin will be on the roster, and if Jackson is allowed to start the season in Iowa I think Colvin will receive a lot of early season at bats. That will allow the Cubs to figure out once and for all if Colvin is part of their outfield future. Under this scenario, when Jackson comes up Byrd would likely be traded.
If you think Colvin is an everyday player, the Cubs will still be needing at least one starting outfielder before the season starts. If you don’t buy into Colvin, they will need two.
The Cubs have been heavily linked to the Cuban prospect Yoennis Cespedes, but it is not certain that he will be ready for Opening Day. Even if the Cubs can sign him (and I hope they do), the team should probably look at him as a likely candidate to platoon with Colvin until one or both have established themselves. That means, even with Cespedes, the Cubs will be needing an outfielder.
Heading into the Winter Meetings, the Cubs’ needs at first base and starting pitching will get the bulk of the attention and rightfully so. Those are the team’s two biggest needs. We cannot forget about the outfield, though. The Cubs offense needs some punch, and a corner outfielder is a good place to find that punch. Even with the likelihood of Jackson arriving, the lack of certainty from Colvin and Campana alongside the probable trade of Soriano leaves the outfield fairly thin. How the Cubs go about solving that problem will be one of the many stories we are watching as the Winter Meetings unfold.