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Cubs Editorials Opinion Spring Training 2018

Cubs: Early Spring Training Position Battles

While there won't be many questions surrounding the 25-man roster this spring, the two final spots on the roster are up for grabs as we approach the Cactus League schedule this weekend.

In spite of a terrible Hot Stove season, Cubs’ brass managed to upgrade the roster through savvy signings and one rather large splash. These moves have rounded out an already stellar roster, shoring up the bullpen and restocking the rotation with a front-end starter in Yu Darvish and a potential breakout candidate in Tyler Chatwood.

The 25-man roster is largely a finished product, as one might expect for a perennial playoff contender. There isn’t a rotation battle happening, even as Mike Montgomery is being worked out as a starter. And while the everyday starters on the field will vary based on match-ups, productivity, and Joe Maddon‘s whims, we have a clear picture of who is in the mix and the playing time they can expect. There’s not a whole lot of drama/competition, allowing camp to be more about preparation than finalization.

Still, there are two positions up-in-the-air: the backup to Willson Contreras, and the eighth member of the bullpen. Both of these are intriguing story lines, and in my mind will be of the most exciting aspects of the spring.

Backup Catcher

One of the loudest Cubs’ rumors this off-season came when they inked Chris Gimenez to a minor league deal. Many were quick to point out that he has a close and effective relationship with Darvish, making erroneous comparisons to the courtship of Jon Lester and David Ross. (I say erroneous because Ross was indeed signed after Lester, not as a recruitment ploy to get him.) Certainly that relationship will be of benefit this spring, but it seems clear he was signed because of his similarities to Ross: a likeable and respected veteran that can provide leadership, well regarded defense behind the dish, and a knowledge of the game that can be imparted onto youngsters. His career .218/.309/.345 triple slash certainly isn’t going to intimidate anyone, but backup catchers don’t stick around for their offense, anyway.

Gimenez had a fantastic interview with Fangraphs last year centering on the topics of communication and incorporating analytics. It’s well worth the read, providing insight as to how he’ll fit in to the clubhouse culture should he break camp with the big-league club. To dig deeper, there’s another piece by Fangraphs displaying his humor, and the rare quirk that he actually has pitched in relief a considerable amount for a position player. (Don’t think Maddon won’t take advantage of this.)

Based on the previous track record of Joe Maddon it seems that Gimenez is the front-runner to backup Contreras to begin the year. Victor Caratini, however, could upend that assumption with a fantastic spring. While he didn’t hit a ton in his brief time in the bigs last year, he put up a respectable triple slash (.254/.333/.356) in 61 plate appearances. He is also a switch hitter that provides capable defense, along with the ability to backup Anthony Rizzo on his rare days of rest.

The biggest concern with Caratini breaking camp is that he might not get enough playing time behind Contreras, which for a younger player is a grave concern, indeed. On the converse, the Cubs would have to make a roster move in order to fit Gimenez, but that could happen naturally depending on the outcome of the 8th slot in the bullpen.

Earlier this off-season — before the Gimenez signing — I predicted Caratini would be on the Opening Day roster. Right now? I think that honor will go to Gimenez. Regardless, we are certainly going to see both in the bigs this year, and that should be a comforting reality for Cubs fans.

Final Bullpen Spot

The Cubs will be carrying an eight-man bullpen, an appropriate move given baseball’s evolution toward shorter outings for starters and stacked back-end relievers. Maddon’s (sometimes too) quick leash on his starters and the versatility of his position players also factor into this decision. Needless to say, it’s the right move for this team.

Entering camp seven of those eight slots are a lock, leaving just one opening with several players jockeying for the role. I examined the bullpen in depth a few weeks ago, and I maintain my assertion that Dillon Maples would be the best choice. He has absolutely electric stuff and could start the year in lower leverage relief situations until he establishes consistency and confidence in himself. I feel as though he could be one of the best weapons the Cubs have in 2018. And if he busts? Send him to Triple-A and give another youngster a shot.

Should Maples make the roster Justin Grimm would be cut (he’s out of options), opening up a spot on the 40-man roster for Gimenez. And given Grimm’s history of inconsistency during his tenure with the Cubs this seems to be the most likely outcome. This spring is a do or die moment for him. Should he be cut another team will certainly take a flier on him, as he’s too young and too talented to not take a chance on.

It’s a wonderful feeling, watching spring training unfold without much concern about position battles or hoping against hope that young prospects will take flight. This Cubs roster has been a process, with the end result being a perennial playoff contender. It’s a magical time to be a fan of this team, and I’m going to enjoy it for as long as it lasts.

Can’t wait for first pitch Friday!

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Austin is the Lead Cubs Writer for The Loop Sports. He's a lifelong baseball junkie (due to his father) and as a former college pitcher has a particular affinity for the art of pitching. Austin loves to commute in Chicago on his bicycle, and enjoys camping and canoeing as often as possible. He attained his master's degree in Social Justice and Community Development from Loyola University Chicago in 2014.

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