The beginning of Spring Training is a particularly wonderful time for Cubs fans. For a fan base constantly clinging to hope over the years, late winter often represented the last true time for hope that the year in question may actually be the year.
Of course, none of us enter 2016 with those such expectations, instead dreaming of and even expecting a season that will continue on into October. Nevertheless, for most of the 21 players invited to camp with the Cubs this spring, Spring Training offers a possibility, however slim, to make an impression on the front office and coaching staff that results in a handful of plate appearances or innings pitched in the Major Leagues this summer. Although such players may be expected to have a better shot of making it on a club like the Phillies or the Padres that figures to be rebuilding in 2016, the likes of Mike Baxter, Phil Coke, and of course, Jonathan Herrera, served as reminders that even a team as wildly successful as the 2015 Cubs has plate appearances and innings to offer non-roster players.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the players in camp with the 2016 Cubs, highlighting those few with the chance to make an appearance with the big club this summer.
The Players: Taylor Davis, Tim Federowicz
Likelihood of Reaching the Majors: Less than 1%. Neither Davis or Federowicz has a prospect future, though Davis does come with an intriguing statistical profile: after seemingly stalling out at High-A in 2013 and flailing horribly in a week-long debut at Tennessee that same year, Davis has rather incredibly produced extremely well offensively over the past two years, compiling a .313/.365/.488 batting line over 2014-15 at Tennessee and Iowa. He's a 26-year-old with limited athleticism -- I've seen him at multiple levels and he'd easily earn the "gamer" label -- but that line is impressive regardless of age and level.
Unfortunately for him, both Miguel Montero and David Ross are entrenched on the MLB roster, and both Kyle Schwarber and top prospect Willson Contreras are more likely to get playing time over either Davis or Federowicz, in part because all four players are already on the 40-man roster.
Best Bet to Make It: Davis
The Players: Jesus Guzman, Munenori Kawasaki, Kristopher Negron
Likelihood of Reaching the Majors: 10%. Guzman made a strong full-season MLB debut with the bat as a 25-year-old with the Padres in 2011, but his statistics tumbled over the following years, and he is coming off of a poor showing in Hiroshima last year. It doesn't look good for the first baseman. Kawasaki has never hit for any modicum of power, but as a glove-first infielder with a .314 career on-base percentage, he could spend a week or two filling in as the 25th man on the roster in the event of an injury.
Negron is significantly more interesting that the first two. A career minor leaguer, he had five plate appearances with the Reds in 2012 and didn't reach the Majors again until 2014. In that season, at age 28, Negron stunningly posted a .271/.331/.479 batting line while playing plus infield defense. His bat evaporated in 2015, both in the Majors and at Triple-A, but in the off chance that there's some late-blooming magic to be found, Negron could be a better short-term injury replacement play than Kawasaki.
Best Bet to Make It: Negron
The Players: Albert Almora, John Andreoli, Matt Murton, Juan Carlos Perez
Likelihood of Reaching the Majors: 80%. The likelihood here is high for a few reasons. First, Jorge Soler has proven to be fragile, increasing the likelihood that a short-term replacement will get some time on the roster. Second, Matt Szczur is out of options, so he may find himself caught in a roster crunch at some point, increasing the need for minor league depth that can play in Chicago should Szczur be claimed/traded to another team at some point. Third, there's no clear fifth outfielder currently -- unless the braintrust has significantly more confidence in Szczur than they showed in 2015 -- leaving a possible Opening Day job before accounting for mid-season injuries.
We'll dispense with Almora first: he's in camp to continue his grooming for a long-term Major League job. If a stopgap is needed during the season, it won't be Almora. He's only coming to Chicago if he has played his way into a full-time gig and shown that his bat is ready for the Majors. The bet here is that he spends all but possibly September in Iowa.
Perez offers some defensive flexibility, a bit of pop, and some speed, but not too terribly much of any of the above. In my viewings of him, Andreoli has alternatingly looked like a prototypical fifth outfielder -- he is tremendously fast with a plus glove and strong on-base skills despite little power -- and a player who shouldn't be in affiliated baseball. To be fair to Andreoli, one of my viewings came at the nadir of his career in the midst of a 5-for-67 nightmare at the end of his 2014 season. He definitely turned things back around in 2015. I liked him.
Of course, the big draw here is Murton, the ex-Cub, former first-round pick, NPB single-season hit king, and owner of a career .286/.352/.436 Major League batting line. Murton is coming off of a poor year in Japan and he's likely done at age 34. Still, his name jumps out.
Best Bet to Make It: Andreoli
The Players: Stephen Fife, Felix Pena, Jonathan Pettibone, Drew Rucinski, Duane Underwood, Ryan Williams
Likelihood of Reaching the Majors: 5%. Despite being a third-round pick of Boston in 2008, Fife has always allowed too many hits in addition to only posting average walk numbers and poor strikeout rates. He has almost no chance to make it.
Like Almora before him, Pena is in camp likely thanks to his prospect status; also like Almora, he should spend all year developing at Triple-A prior to being added to the 40-man roster next November. He took a massive leap forward in his development in 2015 at Tennessee as the undersized righty with serious heat kicked up his strikeout rate in a meaningful way with an accompanying drop in walk rate. He's got a real chance to make it as a fifth starter/swingman thanks to his power arm.
Pettibone had a half-decent run with the Phillies in 2013, compiling nearly 1 WAR over 18 starts, but a slew of shoulder surgeries since have scuttled the career of the big, soft-tossing righty. He likely needs some serious work in the minors before he can hope to sniff The Show.
Rucinski has already obliterated the odds as an undrafted player with 14 Major League innings under his belt. That said: undersized righties with average fastballs have a tough time making it and sticking.
Underwood is the Cubs' top pitching prospect, in camp specifically so he can get a taste before coming back in future years to compete for a rotation spot. He is likely heading for Tennessee after an injury-shortened, low-strikeout yet nonetheless effective season at Myrtle Beach.
Williams still blows me away: his stuff is subpar with a high-80s sinker and a mid-70s frisbee slider. I watched a below-average Double-A lineup hammer the ball off a Williams for a few innings last year...until they couldn't hit him anymore. Huh? Perhaps his mix of size, speed changes, and movement is just that effective. I'm still very skeptical.
Best Bet to Make It: Fife
The Players: Aaron Crow, Jack Leathersich, Jean Machi, Edgar Olmos, Armando Rivero
Likelihood of Reaching the Majors: 95%. Crow was a spectacularly effective reliever in 2012 who fell on hard times with injuries in subsequent years that sapped him of his velocity before costing him all of 2015.
Leathersich is hilariously unhittable: he has a minor league walk rate of nearly 5 BB/9...but a K/9 of 15.18! That is not a misprint. If he ever learns to harness his stuff, he has the makings of a wonderful LOOGY future. The odds, however, are very low.
Machi is the obvious pick in this group having made 181 Major League appearances over the past three years, primarily as a Giant. Machi was superb in 2013 and plenty serviceable in 2014 before the wheels fell off in 2015 as he allowed more walks and homers while stranding significantly fewer runners and striking out fewer batters. With some corrections, he could spend a good chunk of 2016 in the Majors, be it with the Cubs or elsewhere.
Olmos is a big lefty with serious heat yet absolutely no ability to strike out Major League batters. However, he will be just 26 this year, so there's reason to hope that his big spike in a Triple-A strikeouts from 2015 can carry over somewhat in the Majors this year.
Rivero's massive regression in 2015 was one of the few down notes for the franchise last year. After averaging over 13.5 K/9 over the previous two years during a quick rise through the system, Rivero's rate plummeted to 8.37 K/9 while he simultaneously posted career-worst walk and strand rates. Yuck. There's still a plus-plus fastball and a possibly plus slider in play, so there's plenty of reason to hope for Rivero. Unfortunately, he may need a bit more development than we hoped. 2016 is absolutely in play, however.
Best Bet to Make It: Machi
There we have it. 21 players with dreams of reaching Chicago. Some may break camp and head to Anaheim whereas others may never sniff the Majors again.
Is there anyone on this list that you expect to see with the Cubs this year?