SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — One of the things that often comes with a World Series championship is that the following year, the roster’s pretty well set. With the return of Kyle Schwarber and the acquisition of Jon Jay, any battle for the last position-player spot on the 25-man Opening Night roster comes down to Tommy La Stella or Matt Szczur.
Both of those players could probably start, at least in a platoon role, for a lot of big-league teams. Both have qualities and abilities recommending them for a roster spot on this year’s Cubs. Let’s take a look.
Szczur has played in 187 big-league games over the past three seasons, hitting .245/.297/.376 for his career. His 2016 numbers were better than that: .259/.312/.400 with five home runs in 200 plate appearances. He can play all three outfield positions competently, and has a reputation as a good teammate and clubhouse guy. And Szczur’s bat helped Anthony Rizzo break out of a slump last October in the NLCS. (The last is simply a humorous anecdote.)
As a pinch-hitter — which would be one of his major roles if he stays — Szczur is 17-for-80 in his career (.213) with four doubles and a triple. In 2016, he hit .261 as a PH (12-for-46) with a double, a triple and three walks.
Szczur is out of options and no doubt would be claimed by someone if the Cubs tried to get waivers on him so they could keep him at Triple-A Iowa.
Tommy La Stella
La Stella has played in 200 big-league games over the past three seasons, hitting .258/.336/.352 for his career. Like Szczur, his 2016 numbers were better: .270/.357/.405 with 12 doubles and two home runs in 169 plate appearances. He can play second base and third base, though he appears only adequate at those positions. Hitting lefthanded is a plus for him, giving the team some flexibility.
As a pinch-hitter — which, like Szczur, would be one of his major roles if he stays — TLS is 11-for-50 (.220) in his career with five doubles. In 2016 he wasn’t very good at pinch-hitting: 5-for-31 (.161), though with three doubles and six walks. His reputation as a “good” pinch-hitter probably comes from the small sample size in 2015, when he was 6-for-14 with two doubles.
Without wanting to rehash the episode from last year where TLS refused a minor-league assignment for a time, I’ll simply say that it happened and it likely is a consideration for management when deciding between these two players. Unlike Szczur, TLS has options remaining and the team could choose to send him down again.
With the Cubs having several other players (Javier Baez, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras) who can play multiple positions, I think the best choice here is Szczur, particularly since the Cubs would likely lose him if they expose him to waivers.
Jeimer Candelario, who could also likely start for a few big-league teams, has options remaining and is blocked at the two positions he can play (third base and first base), so he’s likely headed to Iowa again. Candelario has been impressive in the field during spring training.