The Cubs have another roster crunch on their hands, only this one doesn’t have to do with making sure they can field a full roster for the last four weeks of the season.
The Rule 5 Draft will return this offseason, and the front office is carefully considering who they’ll want to protect from the draft. The rules of eligibility (as laid out on MLB.com) state that players signed at age 18 or younger need to be added to their team’s 40-man roster within five seasons, and players who signed at age 19 or older need to be added within four seasons. Otherwise, they can be picked up by another club for $100,000.
There’s a laundry list of Cubs minor leaguers who will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft at the conclusion of the season — North Side Bound’s most recent update has it at about 70 — which means decisions will have to be made in the next few months on who should be added to the 40-man before the draft is held.
“We’re trying to figure out our roster, which is a bit more complicated than usual,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said Tuesday. “… We have had a lot of discussions about the 40-man for the last few weeks, how we’re going to play it.”
Not every eligible player will be selected, even the ones who may one day have teams kicking themselves for not seeing a future big leaguer in the making (remember, the Cubs left Willson Contreras unprotected before his breakout 2015 minor league season). The fact that teams must assign any drafted players to their 26-man rosters and would have to place them on outright waivers to remove them from it next season — thus potentially having to use an active roster spot for all of 2023 on someone who isn’t major league ready — also makes it likely that many of those not added to the 40-man won’t change teams this offseason.
But there are players who could definitely be selected, which means tough decisions are coming. There are both positive and negative ways to look at it. Hoyer is certainly taking the positive approach.
“I’ve said this before, it’s a good problem to have,” he said. “When you have no real strong 40-man roster decisions or no difficult decisions, that’s a problem. We have a lot of really difficult ones now or guys that I think are deserving.”
The negative side of it is that there isn’t much time left in the year.
The Cubs’ regular season ends on Oct 5. Triple-A Iowa’s ends on Sept. 28. Double-A Tennessee’s ends on Sept. 18. Both High-A South Bend and Low-A Myrtle Beach’s end on Sept. 11. So are only a few weeks left to get a good look at players on the bubble.
As far as those not on the bubble, Hayden Wesneski, who made his big league debut in impressive fashion on Tuesday and is ranked No. 12 in the system (per MLB Pipeline), is now on the 40-man and will almost certainly stay there. The same goes for other top-30 prospects already on the 40-man: Caleb Kilian (No. 14, debuted on June 4), Alexander Canario (No. 8, promoted to Triple-A on Aug. 22) and Miguel Amaya (No. 16). Hoyer and Co. don’t need to see anything more to know those players must remain protected.
However, they still have to narrow down the list to the ones they don’t want to risk losing to other teams. That of course includes top prospects like Brennen Davis (No. 2), Kevin Alcantara (No. 3) and Ben Brown (No. 7), but other top minor leaguers like Yohendrick Pinango (No. 18), Chase Strumpf (No. 25) and Luis Devers (No. 26), as well as others who warrant consideration could also fall on that list. Right now, the Cubs’ focus is on making sure they make the right decisions on those players.
One of those decisions is on the way for the Cubs’ starting pitcher on Thursday, Adrian Sampson.
At 30 years old and having made his MLB debut six seasons ago, Sampson is no longer a prospect. The Cubs know what they have in him. With the amount of injuries the rotation has suffered this season, Sampson has helped take on some of the load and ranks sixth on the team in both starts (14) and innings (76 2/3) following his six-plus innings of one-run ball against the Reds.
However, he’s also a pitcher the Cubs were comfortable enough to designate for assignment once already this season, and he’s probably depth for what they envision to be a competitive five-man rotation at best. So, the Cubs will have to ask themselves: is the depth Sampson provides valuable enough to keep him on the 40-man and make sure he stays with the organization, or is his spot one that needs to be used to protect someone else?
“It’s totally out of my control,” Sampson said, “but I mean, heaven on earth is pitching at Wrigley on a day like [Thursday]: 70s, beautiful weather out, blue skies, always great fans. It’s very tough to beat, so I feel very comfortable out there. I’m just enjoying every single moment I have out there, but down the road, that’s not up to me.”
The decision around Sampson is one of many facing the Cubs before the Rule 5 Draft arrives, not to mention moves that’ll have to be made after the season to reinstate players currently on the 60-day injured list or to bring back any one set to hit free agency.
It’ll make for a very intriguing storyline once the season wraps up, a storyline the Cubs find positives in having been able to get a head start on.
“It’s a lot of preparation this month, which from a work standpoint I think is pretty enjoyable,” Hoyer said. “You’re looking ahead, you’re thinking about those things. Obviously, you’d much rather be actively preparing your advanced scouting stuff. That’s the September you want to have, but if you’re not in the postseason or in the race, it is a really good month of preparation. And frankly, October becomes the same thing as well.”
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