Buried in this New York Post article by Joel Sherman from a couple of weeks ago detailing some of the disagreements between players and owners is this nugget about how MLB team rosters might be constructed in an abbreviated 2020 season:
The current plan calls for either 78 or 82 games, regional play by which teams play exclusively in their division and their crossover division (thus, AL East vs. NL East) to limit travel and both the rosters and the playoffs are expanded — I heard a strong possibility of 30 players available daily with a 20-player taxi squad staying ready if needed and a postseason of 14 teams rather than 10.
There’s not going to be a minor-league season, so the 30 (up from 26) players “available daily” and the 20-player “taxi squad” would consist, most probably, of the top players in teams’ minor-league systems, the guys teams want to get somewhat regular play in 2020. They’d likely wind up playing intrasquad games of some sort to be able to stay ready to stand in, in case of injury or fatigue. It still isn’t clear how roster moves would be regulated this year, but it seems doubtful that teams would be forced to send a player to the “taxi squad” for the 10- or 15-day minimum that’s been used in the past given the shortened time frame of the season. There would probably have to be some restrictions so teams don’t just send their starting pitchers to the taxi squad on days they’re not starting. A five-day minimum would keep shenanigans to a minimum.
So what would a Cubs 30-man active roster and 20-man taxi squad look like? I decided to begin with the players who were remaining in camp when baseball shut down March 12. As it happened, the Cubs had just made roster cuts the day before to reduce the spring roster to 39. Of those 39, 31 were players on the 40-man roster and eight were non-roster invitees.
Here are those 39 players (non-roster players in italics):
Rex Brothers, Tyler Chatwood, Jharel Cotton, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jeremy Jeffress, Craig Kimbrel, Jon Lester, Dillon Maples, Trevor Megill, Alec Mills, Brandon Morrow, Jose Quintana, Kyle Ryan, Michael Rucker, Casey Sadler, Ryan Tepera, Duane Underwood Jr., Rowan Wick, Brad Wieck, Dan Winkler
Victor Caratini, Willson Contreras, P.J. Higgins, Josh Phegley
Javier Baez, David Bote, Kris Bryant, Daniel Descalso, Nico Hoerner, Jason Kipnis, Hernan Perez, Anthony Rizzo
Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Ian Miller, Kyle Schwarber, Steven Souza Jr.
You might not recognize Michael Rucker’s name. He was a Rule 5 pick by the Orioles, who returned him to the Cubs the day before baseball shut down. Rucker was given a non-roster invite by the Cubs, but obviously never got into a game. He also fell into a loophole that didn’t cover pay for players in his situation. That was eventually cleared up, per this fascinating article by Dan Connolly at The Athletic.
The way I see a 30-man roster is split right in half: 15 pitchers and 15 position players. That would give the Cubs a five-man rotation and 10 relief pitchers, which you’d think would be enough to cover shorter outings by starters when things begin. Theoretically, they could fill in with guys from the taxi squad.
There are eight non-roster players among those 39. If the Cubs wanted to keep any of them, they’d presumably have to find room on the 40-man roster for them. That’s going to be tough. I don’t see any obvious cuts on the current 40-man, unless the Cubs want to eat Daniel Descalso’s contract. I’d have said that was an easy call pre-pandemic, but I doubt the Cubs want to just eat that money now, though it is a sunk cost — they have to pay him regardless of whether he plays for them or not.
Trevor Megill, a Rule 5 pick is still on the 40-man roster, had a good spring and had an outside shot at the 26-man roster in a normal season. I’d think the Cubs would want to keep him. If teams are permitted to keep guys like that on the “taxi squad,” that’d be an easy call IF that would also allow them to take him off the 40-man. But it’s still unclear how Rule 5 guys will be treated in this situation.
This means that a lot of the non-roster invitees will probably have to sit on the Cubs’ taxi squad until they find a way to get them on the 40-man. Duane Underwood Jr. is out of options and the Cubs might have to expose him to waivers. That’d make a 40-man spot available.
So here’s how I figure the Cubs’ 30-man roster to be constituted:
Starters: Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Tyler Chatwood
Relievers: Craig Kimbrel, Jeremy Jeffress, Dan Winkler, Ryan Tepera, Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick, Brad Wieck, Dillon Maples, Trevor Megill, Alec Mills
Miguel Amaya, Victor Caratini, Willson Contreras
Javier Baez, David Bote, Kris Bryant, Daniel Descalso, Nico Hoerner, Jason Kipnis, Anthony Rizzo
Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Steven Souza Jr.
It seemed clear to me during spring training that the Cubs intended to give Kipnis a 26-man roster spot and start him at second base, at least against righthanders. Designating Underwood for assignment would make room for him. I’ve got Miguel Amaya listed here because the Cubs’ other two catchers are both non-roster invitees, while Amaya is on the 40-man roster. With no minor-league season, might as well give Amaya some playing time. We are going to see a LOT more substitutions and bench players starting in 2020 than we would see in a “normal” baseball season.
Now, the 20-man “taxi squad.” For the purposes of this article I’m going to assume that teams are going to be permitted to keep guys who were spring training NRIs around for this purpose, though they’d have to be added to the 40-man if “called up” to play. That’s why I list Miguel Amaya as the third catcher, even though Josh Phegley has more MLB experience. Phegley would require a 40-man spot and Amaya wouldn’t.
The taxi squad would consist of the remaining players on the 40-man roster, some of the NRIs, and other minor leaguers the Cubs want to give a shot. Here’s my best guess (again, non-roster invitees in italics):
Jason Adam, Adbert Alzolay, Rex Brothers, Jharel Cotton, Danny Hultzen, Dakota Mekkes, Brandon Morrow, James Norwood, Colin Rea, Michael Rucker, Justin Steele
P.J. Higgins, Josh Phegley
Robel Garcia, Hernan Perez, Trent Giambrone, Zack Short
Noel Cuevas, Ian Miller, Mark Zagunis
14 of the 20 taxi-squad players I’ve listed have some major-league experience, which could be important. It’s unclear whether Morrow, who was shut down in early March, might be ready to pitch in July. If not, he’d be replaced by someone else. It seems likely that there could be a fair amount of swapping around of players who had non-roster invitations to spring training for various teams as they try to figure out this new way of playing baseball.
We still don’t know if there actually is going to be baseball this summer. But time is drawing short and all the parties involved in baseball have a strong interest in having some sort of 2020 season. Let’s hope they can make it happen. In the meantime, I thought you all might like to start thinking about who might play for the 2020 Cubs.