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Taking a closer look at the Cubs' 40-man crunch

Ryan Herrera Avatar
September 20, 2022

Over the last week, the Cubs made a slew of moves to shuffle around both their active and 40-man rosters.

Adbert Alzolay (activated from 60-day injured list), Jared Young (selected from Triple-A Iowa) and Esteban Quiroz (selected from Iowa) are now on the big league club, while moves involving Frank Schwindel (DFA’d and granted unconditional release), Sean Newcomb (DFA’d and sent outright to Iowa) and Rafael Ortega (placed on 60-day IL) opened up spots on both rosters.

With so little time left in the year, those moves have added another wrinkle to the decision-making the Cubs’ front office will be doing this offseason — and more specifically, the decisions they’ll make surrounding who to keep on the 40-man roster before the Rule 5 Draft.

A couple of weeks back, we discussed the rules of that draft and how the Cubs are approaching the roster crunch, and we also took a look at some prospects who should be added to the 40-man roster prior to “Protection Day” on Nov. 18. But as the season winds down, it’s time take a look at the players the Cubs will have to make decisions on in the coming weeks.

As it stands now, the 40-man is full. So let’s sort through those players by putting them into three groups: the locks, the bubble and the free-agents-to-be.

“The locks,” obviously, refers to the players who, barring unexpected moves, should remain on the 40-man roster. That includes players who are certain to remain on the 40-man, plus others who aren’t necessarily “locks” but are as close as it gets. Here’s that group, listed alphabetically in order of position (P, C, INF, OF):

  1. Adbert Alzolay
  2. Javier Assad
  3. Jeremiah Estrada
  4. Brandon Hughes
  5. Caleb Kilian
  6. Brailyn Marquez
  7. Manuel Rodríguez
  8. Michael Rucker
  9. Justin Steele
  10. Marcus Stroman
  11. Keegan Thompson
  12. Erich Uelman
  13. Hayden Wesneski
  14. Rowan Wick
  15. Miguel Amaya
  16. Yan Gomes
  17. PJ Higgins
  18. Nico Hoerner
  19. Nick Madrigal
  20. Patrick Wisdom
  21. Alexander Canario
  22. Ian Happ
  23. Christopher Morel
  24. Seiya Suzuki
  25. Nelson Velázquez

Next comes the group of players on the bubble. These players are on this list for various reasons and to varying degrees and all have a case to remain on the 40-man, but they aren’t as certain to stick around as the 25 players above:

  1. Steven Brault
  2. Anderson Espinoza
  3. Mark Leiter Jr.
  4. Adrian Sampson
  5. David Bote
  6. Zach McKinstry
  7. Esteban Quiroz
  8. Alfonso Rivas
  9. Jared Young
  10. Narciso Crook
  11. Michael Hermosillo
  12. Franmil Reyes

(Note: Some players, like McKinstry, Reyes and Sampson, could certainly have been in the “locks” group, and good ends to the year will help their cause, but their futures may still depend a bit more on other factors.)

The third group consists of the free-agents-to-be, who, regardless of the likelihood they return in 2023, will be off the 40-man roster at the conclusion of the season as they would earn free agent status the day after the World Series:

  1. Willson Contreras
  2. Wade Miley
  3. Drew Smyly (mutual option for 2023)

In addition, there’s a fourth group consisting of the eight players who would, by rule, have to be added back to the 40-man after the season. Seven of them are on the 60-day IL and one is on the restricted list, but because players under team control can’t remain on those lists during the offseason, they’d have to be activated once the season wraps up — the day after the World Series to be exact:

  1. Kyle Hendricks (60-day IL)
  2. Codi Heuer (60-day IL)
  3. Alec Mills (60-day IL)
  4. Ethan Roberts (60-day IL)
  5. Alexander Vizcaíno (restricted list)
  6. Brad Wieck (60-day IL)
  7. Rafael Ortega (60-day IL)
  8. Jason Heyward (60-day IL)

(Note: Heuer, Roberts and Wieck are expected to miss most, if not all, of 2023 after undergoing Tommy John surgery this season, but they’ll still have to be added back along with the rest of the players on the 60-day IL who the Cubs wants to keep in the system.)

That’s the outlook at the players whose futures will be affected by roster decisions the Cubs make in the near future, 48 in total. Obviously, the Cubs will have to trim that down to 40 in short order.

The decision to not bring Heyward back next season only brings that number down by one. But that leaves seven other decisions that have to be made right away for the players currently on the 60-day and the restricted list.

Of course, with only 37 players on the 40-man right now who won’t be free agents, that means just four cuts if the Cubs do decide to bring back all seven. But then again, if the Cubs agree to deals with one or two or three of their free agents, that’s another one or two or three cuts that’ll have to be made.

That also doesn’t include any free agents from other teams the Cubs bring into the fold, plus prospects who are Rule 5 Draft eligible but deemed necessary to protect. While we won’t know who the Cubs will sign until it happens, here are a few of the many players eligible for the Draft who the Cubs could add to the 40-man to ensure they stay in the organization:

  • Brennen Davis
  • Ben Brown
  • Kevin Alcantara
  • Yohendrick Pinango
  • Chase Strumpf
  • Luis Devers
  • Ryan Jensen
  • Kohl Franklin
  • Cam Sanders
  • Danis Correa
  • Bryce Ball
  • Darius Hill

Davis, Brown and Alcantara are pretty much locks to be added to the 40-man roster, which means another three cuts to the 40-man as it’s currently constructed. Anyone else on that list — or from the rest of the group of eligible players — will require more.

This all ties back into the reason why a player like Matt Mervis hasn’t been called up to the big leagues yet and won’t at any point the rest of this season. Clearly, there are plenty of players who are eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this offseason, and because Mervis isn’t, the Cubs are keeping that spot and more open for players they absolutely want to have on the 40-man roster — or at least want to see in the big leagues the rest of the way to give them more clarity on the situation.

President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer recently referred to having to make these decisions as a good problem to have, which is certainly a positive way of looking at it. But tough conversations are coming, and probably even some tough goodbyes, too.

The Cubs still have some time to make these decisions, but with only about two weeks left in the year, the clock is ticking.

****

In case you’re looking for it, here are key offseason dates involving the Rule 5 Draft:

  • Day after World Series: Cubs must activate players on the 60-day IL and restricted list; players become free agents
  • Days 1-5 after World Series: Cubs have something of an exclusive negotiating window with their free agents during the five-day period after the seasons ends, because players cannot sign with any other team but their own at this time; decisions on options (i.e., Smyly’s mutual option) are made during this window, and qualifying offers are due on the last day of this period (i.e., an offer the Cubs may give to Contreras, who will then have 10 days to accept or reject it)
  • Nov. 18: Cubs must have their 40-man roster set, in terms of which Rule 5 Draft eligible players will be protected
  • Final day of Winter Meetings: Rule 5 Draft typically occurs on the last day of Winter Meetings in December; any eligible player not on the 40-man roster can be selected

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