Chicago Cubs roster projection 1.0: Which 26 players will break camp for the 2021 season opener?

Meghan Montemurro, Chicago Tribune
·9 min read

As the Chicago Cubs built their 2021 roster during the offseason, it became clear they are counting on key returning players to produce at least their career averages.

Filling in the right pieces around core players can separate playoff contenders from middling teams. The Cubs have 5 1/4 u00bd weeks to decide who makes the cut for the opening-day roster. The drastic increase in games from last year’s 60-game schedule will test the Cubs’ depth. Spring training is an assessment time, too, to evaluate players who might contribute at some point during the season.

With the Cubs conducting their first full-squad workout Monday, it’s an ideal time to project which 26 players will break camp in Mesa, Ariz., and head to Chicago for the season opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 1 at Wrigley Field.

Manager David Ross has touted the importance of performance in camp for players battling for a roster spot. So expect to see this initial roster projection change over the coming weeks as injuries crop up and players start to separate themselves.

Starting pitchers (5)

RHP Zach Davies","type":"text

RHP Jake Arrieta","type":"text

RHP Trevor Williams","type":"text

RHP Alec Mills","type":"text

The first three spots are locked in, barring injuries. Spring training performances will help dictate who secures the other two rotation jobs. The Cubs will need more than five starters to make it through the season while jumping back to a full 162-game slate. So some strategy could be in the mix because most pitchers’ workloads will have to be managed this year.

The first three spots are locked in, barring injuries. Spring training performances will help dictate who secures the other two rotation jobs. The Cubs will need more than five starters to make it through the season while jumping back to a full 162-game slate. So some strategy could be in the mix because most pitchers’ workloads will have to be managed this year.

Trevor Williams’ experience — 94 career starts with the Pittsburgh Pirates — makes him an attractive option. The Cubs are confident they can get him back to his 2017-18 form, when he posted a 3.56 ERA, 1.240 WHIP and 115 ERA+ in 62 games (56 starts). The most interesting decision likely comes down to Alec Mills or Adbert Alzolay, one of their top prospects. Whoever doesn’t earn a starting job likely ends up in the bullpen. Notably, Mills does not have any minor-league options left. Alzolay possesses more upside, while Mills has more experience. This early in camp, the latter gets the edge.

Also on the 40-man roster: LHP Brailyn Marquez, RHP Tyson Miller, RHP Cory Abbott, RHP Gray Fenter, LHP Brendon Little, RHP Kohl Stewart, RHP Keegan Thompson, LHP Justin Steele

Relief pitchers (8)

RHP Brandon Workman","type":"text

RHP Rowan Wick","type":"text

LHP Andrew Chafin","type":"text

RHP Jason Adam","type":"text

LHP Kyle Ryan","type":"text

RHP Duane Underwood Jr.","type":"text

RHP Adbert Alzolay","type":"text

Bullpens are notoriously volatile, and evaluating relievers’ performances off a weird year adds another wrinkle. Without naming anyone, Ross estimated Saturday that five guys are “pretty locked in” to the bullpen. Ross already has anointed Craig Kimbrel the closer to start the season, while Brandon Workman’s history profiles him as a setup option and backup closer if Kimbrel falters. Andrew Chafin appeared in four games for the Cubs after a trade-deadline move and lines up to be one of at least two lefties they carry in the pen and another high-leverage possibility.

Bullpens are notoriously volatile, and evaluating relievers’ performances off a weird year adds another wrinkle. Without naming anyone, Ross estimated Saturday that five guys are “pretty locked in” to the bullpen. Ross already has anointed Craig Kimbrel the closer to start the season, while Brandon Workman’s history profiles him as a setup option and backup closer if Kimbrel falters. Andrew Chafin appeared in four games for the Cubs after a trade-deadline move and lines up to be one of at least two lefties they carry in the pen and another high-leverage possibility.

For now, Rowan Wick and Kyle Ryan are included in the opening-day projection, but their uncertainties will gain clarity in the next couple of weeks. Wick is dealing with an intercostal issue, the same oblique injury that landed him on the injured list in September. He will be slowed at the start of camp. Ryan was placed on the COVID-19 list this week, and his timeline is unclear.

Duane Underwood Jr.’s strikeout rate (11.8 per nine innings) is an asset for a reliever combined with a fastball that sits at 94 mph and can top out at 97. He doesn’t walk many hitters either (2.6 per nine innings). Jason Adam, an offseason free-agent signing a year ago, battled control issues at times but was otherwise reliable and showed an uptick in strikeouts (a career-best 13.8 per nine innings).

Right-handers Dan Winkler and Jonathan Holder are also contenders to make the bullpen. Winkler’s walk rate last year is concerning (a career-high 13.8%), though he was able to work around it to be successful enough. Intriguing non-roster relievers with big-league experience include left-handers Adam Morgan and Rex Brothers and right-handers Pedro Strop and Joe Biagini.

“That’s the tricky part, right? You’ve got guys who haven’t even had real competition in over a year,” Ross said of the non-roster pitchers. “I think we have a good picture of our in-house guys that have sent in information throughout this downtime. Our front office and player development staff did a really good job of helping these guys continue to develop at home.”

Also on the 40-man: RHP Dan Winkler, RHP Jonathan Holder, RHP Dillon Maples, RHP Brad Wieck, RHP James Norwood, RHP Manuel Rodriguez, RHP Robert Stock

Catchers (2)

Austin Romine","type":"text

The Cubs believe the defensive strides Willson Contreras made last year are sustainable, especially his pitch framing. Continuing to improve that part of his game complements an already elite offensive profile. “In my opinion, him and J.T. Realmuto are the two best (catchers) in the game,” Jake Arrieta said. “Just the way his explosiveness is behind the plate. There’s not many guys that can move and operate like that as a catcher.” Austin Romine is a career backup, predominantly with the New York Yankees, and brings big-league experience and leadership. The Cubs also have veteran José Lobatón in camp on a non-roster deal.

The Cubs believe the defensive strides Willson Contreras made last year are sustainable, especially his pitch framing. Continuing to improve that part of his game complements an already elite offensive profile. “In my opinion, him and J.T. Realmuto are the two best (catchers) in the game,” Jake Arrieta said. “Just the way his explosiveness is behind the plate. There’s not many guys that can move and operate like that as a catcher.” Austin Romine is a career backup, predominantly with the New York Yankees, and brings big-league experience and leadership. The Cubs also have veteran José Lobatón in camp on a non-roster deal.

Also on the 40-man: Miguel Amaya

Infielders (6)

David Bote","type":"text

Nico Hoerner","type":"text

Javier Baez","type":"text

Kris Bryant","type":"text

Ildemaro Vargas","type":"text

Second base is the only infield position the Cubs must solve this spring, a three-way competition among David Bote, Nico Hoerner and Ildemaro Vargas. Vargas is more suited for the bench, setting up a showdown between Bote and Hoerner. Bote didn’t put up the offensive numbers he’s capable of in 2020, though his production exceeded Hoerner’s, who dealt with rookie struggles. The Cubs expect Hoerner to adjust and take a step forward this season. They might feel more comfortable giving Bote the bulk of playing time to start the year. The 23-year-old Hoerner is an exciting young player, and with a good spring performance, he could push for the starting job. His defensive abilities shouldn’t be overlooked either.

Second base is the only infield position the Cubs must solve this spring, a three-way competition among David Bote, Nico Hoerner and Ildemaro Vargas. Vargas is more suited for the bench, setting up a showdown between Bote and Hoerner. Bote didn’t put up the offensive numbers he’s capable of in 2020, though his production exceeded Hoerner’s, who dealt with rookie struggles. The Cubs expect Hoerner to adjust and take a step forward this season. They might feel more comfortable giving Bote the bulk of playing time to start the year. The 23-year-old Hoerner is an exciting young player, and with a good spring performance, he could push for the starting job. His defensive abilities shouldn’t be overlooked either.

Also on the 40-man: Christopher Morel

Outfielders (5)

Ian Happ","type":"text

Jason Heyward","type":"text

Jake Marisnick","type":"text

Cameron Maybin","type":"text

The regular outfield is set after the Joc Pederson signing. Settling on the fourth and fifth outfielders is where decisions must be made. Jake Marisnick’s one-year deal with a 2022 mutual option was officially announced Saturday. He gives the Cubs a great defensive player off the bench. He can play all three outfield spots, with most of his playing time coming in center the last four years, and he has recorded at least 0.5 defensive wins above replacement (dWAR) in six of his eight big-league seasons. The Cubs have a few non-roster options to fill a fifth outfield spot. The team’s familiarity with veteran Cameron Maybin, who reportedly signed a minor-league deal with a camp invite after appearing in 18 games for the Cubs last year, could give him an inside track. Michael Hermosillo and Nick Martini, both local products, boast big-league experience and should be contenders.

The regular outfield is set after the Joc Pederson signing. Settling on the fourth and fifth outfielders is where decisions must be made. Jake Marisnick’s one-year deal with a 2022 mutual option was officially announced Saturday. He gives the Cubs a great defensive player off the bench. He can play all three outfield spots, with most of his playing time coming in center the last four years, and he has recorded at least 0.5 defensive wins above replacement (dWAR) in six of his eight big-league seasons. The Cubs have a few non-roster options to fill a fifth outfield spot. The team’s familiarity with veteran Cameron Maybin, who reportedly signed a minor-league deal with a camp invite after appearing in 18 games for the Cubs last year, could give him an inside track. Michael Hermosillo and Nick Martini, both local products, boast big-league experience and should be contenders.