The next few days will be about MLB personnel moves regarding the Rule 5 Draft. As with other teams, the Cubs have a number of "coin flip" options for addition to the 40 Man roster before the Rule 5 Draft deadline. One of them is Erick Leal. He recently had a "statistical correction" (one bad game in the AFL), which could have theoretically spiked downward his roster likelihood. Here are some moves I expect to see the next few days in anticipation of the Rule 5 Draft deadline..
As usual, the Cubs expect to be among the last to announce their moves. The reality is, announcing three hours or days before a deadline won't change the wise decision. However, if a move is announced early, and precedes an unexpected injury, an unnecessary complication could have been avoided. As such, look for "three minutes before" again on Tuesday, November 20.
Before I list my expectations, I have a widening concern with the roster-at-large. More of a system concern than a 25-man roster problem, the Cubs have far too many outfielders that don't hit like outfielders.
This isn't a point at Albert Almora Jr. or Ian Happ specifically. It's a depth problem. As the Cubs remain hyper-focused on locating defensive-minded outfielders, they have begun to lack depth among slugging outfielders. This is veering from a minor nitpick to an emerging situation. Signing a defense-first player is a fine idea. However, if your upper-minors outfielders all tend to be offensively-inhibited options, that leaves less variety in the system.
Some of the Cubs top likelihoods for notable MLB time aren't Rule 5-eligible yet. As such. Nico Hoerner, Dakota Mekkes, Miguel Amaya, and Trent Giambrone don't need to be added. However, three to five players could be poached.
Justin Steele has earned a roster spot. He pitched reasonably well in the Arizona League. A lefty pitcher on the rebound from Tommy John surgery, he has mid-90s velocity. Whether you're specifically buying him as an innings-eating starter or a moderate leverage reliever, you don't especially want to lose him for cash only.
As the first year back from Tommy John surgery is often the most “injury inhibited,” he may well be better in 2019 and beyond than he was this season. Steele should have a roster spot, within a week.
Trevor Clifton is a bit more of a traditional right-hander. He often sits in the 91-94 range, but has a rather full arsenal of pitches. In 14 Triple-A outings last season, only two saw him give up over three earned runs. As much grumbling as there’s been about “Theo Epstein can’t develop starting pitching,” Clifton is slightly ahead of Steele from a development standpoint.
The Cubs have a string of pitchers developing who aren’t Rule 5-eligible, yet. Keegan Thompson, Alex Lange, Matt Swarmer, Tyson Miller, Cory Abbott, or others, could be that guy in five years, providing cost-controlled quality innings. In the next batch, you could include Brailyn Marquez, Faustino Carrera, recent international signing Richard Gallardo, or a few June draft picks. Having a dozen or more valid options increases the likelihood that a few will hit.
However, of the players needed to be added, Clifton and Steele both make the most sense. Left unprotected, they could very well be poached. Losing a four or five year development piece for $100,000 just in advance of him being particularly useful seems bad business.
On the offensive side, the Triple-A Iowa Cubs, as a team, hit 79 homers in 2018. That’s putrid. The 15th-ranked New Orleans Baby Cakes (Marlins) hit 99. Half the league hit over 140. The only offensive addition to the 40-man roster is likely to be Jason Vosler, who homered 23 times between Tennessee and Iowa. While he isn’t a cinch anything, the Cubs have gotten fairly good recently at developing later-round offensive options. Vosler was a 16t- rounder to David Bote’s 19th.
When injuries happen in 2019, players will be needed to fill in. As so few other valid reserve options are on the horizon, Vosler becomes a bit more logical/necessary. As to “would anyone take the chance?”, that guesswork is off the board, now. The Twins hired the University of Arkansas pitching coach to be their pitching coach. These innovative executives hired across the league will make some moves heretofore unconsidered.
Those three additions would put the Cubs over the limit of 40. With the roster currently standing at 39. other players would need to be subtracted to make room for Vosler, Clifton, and Steele. I’m a bit surprised recent additions Jack Reinheimer, Jerry Vasto, and Johnny Field haven’t already been run through waivers.
At some point, especially if the (sometimes tough to execute) roster-spot saving trade isn’t pending, Taylor Davis and Mark Zagunis might lose their spot on the 40. Jen-Ho Tseng and Allen Webster may be on a bit of thin ice, as well. However, if the three I’m expecting are added, somebody will run the waiver wire gamut soon.
Erick Leal had made a valid case for a roster spot by avoiding giving up a run through most of his Arizona Fall League stint. With a late hiccup, or without, his case was tougher to make. With the 40-man roster assessments, risk and value assessments are needed. I don’t think the blowback of losing Leal would be as much as with the other three. As to whether he would be offered back is dependent on how well he would do elsewhere.
Similarly, catcher PJ Higgins had represented worthy of a spot. As he struggled a bit in Arizona, I doubt he gets rostered, or claimed, if not. As with other similar assessments in the game, the information to process is the information known at the deadline. At the upcoming deadline, Steele, Clifton, and Vosler make the best sense to be protected. Disagree if you want, but if you’re going to, disagree now. The current information is what will make the decision.
The transaction deadline for exemption from the Rule 5 Draft is November 20. The draft itself, both the MLB and Triple-A phase, are on the Thursday of the December Winter Meetings. This year, the festivities are in Las Vegas, with the Draft on December 13.