The Cubs' offseason of change is now officially over. There were some dramatic alterations to the roster, and plenty of other trade rumors that did not materialize. The future was balanced against the present.
And at present, Cubs manager David Ross is planning on taking his cast of players into the 2021 campaign with the goal of winning the National League Central for a second straight year. As camp opened, new president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer also made it known that the major transactions are likely done for now.
"By and large, I would expect this is what our team's going to look like," Hoyer said. "For the most part, this is going to be the group that we open up against Pittsburgh with."
The Cubs will begin the 2021 regular season with an April 1 tilt against the Pirates at Wrigley Field. That gives the North Siders roughly six weeks to sort through position battles, injury issues, contract details or other unforeseen developments in order to construct the initial 26-man roster.
Here is an early breakdown of how the Cubs' Opening Day roster could look:
Catcher (2): Willson Contreras, Austin Romine
There is no ambiguity at this spot for the Cubs. Contreras was the starting catcher for the National League All-Star team in 2018 and '19 and is coming off a 2020 season in which he dramatically improved his pitch framing. Ross' biggest challenge will be convincing Contreras to take a day off every once in a while. Romine was signed over the offseason to take over for Victor Caratini (traded to San Diego) as Contreras' primary backup. Adding the veteran Romine also allows more development time for prospect Miguel Amaya.
First base (1): Anthony Rizzo
When healthy, Rizzo has shown he can provide around 30 homers, 70-plus walks and 100 RBIs, while playing Gold Glove-level defense. In last season's abbreviated season, Rizzo's average was down (.222), but he still managed to post a .342 on-base percentage. The first baseman also picked up his third straight Gold Glove Award for a Cubs defense that took a big step forward in 2020. Rizzo is entering the final year of his contract with Chicago, so uncertainty surrounds his future beyond this year.
Second base (1): Nico Hoerner
While this one is written in pencil right now, the Cubs might find its best to hand the keys to second base over to the 23-year-old Hoerner. Improving the lineup's contact rate is a goal for Chicago and Hoerner -- even coming off a down year offensively -- can help in that regard. He was also a Gold Glove finalist at second in 2020, and defense at the position will be a priority this year. That said, the North Siders will be using this spring to determine the best path for the keystone. David Bote and Ildemaro Vargas are also jockeying for innings at this spot on the infield.
Third base (1): Kris Bryant
Another offseason filled with trade rumors is in the rear-view mirror and Bryant, once again, remains with the Cubs. The white noise will continue into the summer, given the reality that the star third baseman is set to hit free agency after the season. Bryant will surely be thrilled to move past 2020, when persistent injury woes limited him to 34 games and crushed his production (.644 OPS). Bryant will be aiming to get back to the level of the previous five years, which includes a .901 OPS and plenty of hardware. Bryant can also serve as a backup at first and, if needed, in the outfield. Bote, Hoerner and Vargas can help out at third base.
Shortstop (1): Javier Báez
Like Bryant and Rizzo, Báez is entering a walk year with free agency possibly looming after the season. Of the three, the shortstop might be the most likely to receive a contract extension before hitting the open market. Also like Bryant and Rizzo, Báez is coming off a down year in the batter's box (.203/.238/.360 in 59 games). The shortstop did take home his first Gold Glove Award as the anchor of Chicago's defense. Báez, who had an .865 OPS and 122 OPS+ in the 2018-19 seasons combined, was vocal about how the lack of in-game video in 2020 hindered his approach. Behind Báez, Hoerner is the Cubs' top backup option for shortstop.
Outfield (4): Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Joc Pederson, Jake Marisnick
The big change here is the absence of slugger Kyle Schwarber. In an offseason full of change, one significant move was the Cubs' decision to non-tender Schwarber (and center fielder Albert Almora Jr.). Schwarber signed a free-agent pact with the Nationals and the Cubs later inked Pederson to a one-year deal (with a mutual option for 2022) to be the new left fielder. Happ earned the everyday job in center last year, while Heyward also enjoyed a strong 2020 and will keep providing a veteran presence and Gold Glove-caliber defense in right.
Utility (3): David Bote, Ildemaro Vargas, 1 TBD
The situation at second base will have a trickle-down effect on the makeup of the Cubs' bench. Expect Bote to either be getting the bulk of the at-bats at second, or serving as a versatile utility option all around the infield. Vargas is a switch-hitter and can similarly offer depth at multiple spots. If Hoerner is not the starting second baseman, he could either start at Triple-A Iowa for regular playing time, or work as a utility option as well.
Starting pitchers (5): Kyle Hendricks, Zach Davies, Jake Arrieta, 2 TBD
This is an area the Cubs really turned over during the winter months. Ace Yu Darvish was traded to the Padres, while Jon Lester, Tyler Chatwood and José Quintana were allowed to exit via free agency. Hendricks returns as the rotation leader, Arrieta returns after three years with the Phillies and Davies was part of the return in the trade with San Diego.
The Cubs will be sorting through the back of the staff this spring. Trevor Williams was signed as a comeback candidate and he'll compete for a job in the coming weeks. Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay are leading candidates for jobs, too. Chicago will also be looking at Kohl Stewart as a contender for rotation innings or as a swing man for the bullpen. Chicago might also see younger options like Brailyn Marquez, Cory Abbott, Tyson Miller and Justin Steele impact the team this summer.
This will be a source of spring-long storylines for the Cubs, who are weighing a variety of scenarios -- much like every team -- to best manage the team's total innings this year after a 60-game season.
Kimbrel is back as the closer, with Chafin (lefty) and Workman (righty) offering setup options. Winkler was quietly impressive in 2020 and Stewart will be a strong candidate for a multi-inning role. For now, Rowan Wick (intercostal injury) is too much of an unknown to put in the Opening Day projection. It is also worth noting that both Mills -- who's out of options -- and Alzolay (vying for rotation jobs) could wind up in the bullpen as a swing-man option. Duane Underwood Jr. and Dillon Maples are also out of options. James Norwood remains in the hunt for a roster spot, and righty Jason Adam will be given a strong look, given his late emergence as a relief weapon last season. Lefties Brad Wieck and Kyle Ryan will also be up for jobs, though the latter is currently delayed while on MLB's COVID-19 related injury list. Jonathan Holder (MLB deal), Robert Stock (claimed off waivers) and Gray Fenter (Rule 5 Draft) were also added to the mix over the offseason.
The list keeps going when including prospects on and off the roster, and when looking at the more veteran non-roster invitees. The Cubs have a lot of decisions to work through on this front.