The clock continues to tick toward Opening Day. As Cubs manager David Ross monitors his team, and continues to make evaluations with roster construction in mind, he has enjoyed what he has seen and heard around camp.
"The work has been great," Ross said. "They're talking and having the right conversations. Listening to them talk, I'm happy where everyone's at. I feel like we've played great baseball this spring.
"There's been a lot of aspects of our game that I've thought have been just very clean, when it comes to just the fundamental things that you try to take care of in Spring Training."
Soon, Ross and the Cubs' front-office decision-makers will have to make some calls on the final roster spots. With that in mind, here is the latest breakdown of how the Chicago's Opening Day roster could look come April 1 at Wrigley Field:
Catcher (2): Willson Contreras, 1 TBD
Ross recently joked that he wished that he could put Contreras in bubble wrap and ship him away to Wrigley Field for the start of the season. The All-Star catcher has been on an offensive tear (.310/.412/.724 slash line through 11 spring games) that Chicago hopes portends great things for the year ahead.
Behind Contreras, veteran backup Austin Romine (right knee sprain) remains sidelined and it looks like P.J. Higgins (non-roster) is primed for the backup role come Opening Day. Higgins can play multiple infield spots in addition to catching, and he has impressed Ross with his ability to make consistent contact in the batter's box. In recent games, Higgins was asked to follow scouting reports in-game and Ross said that the catcher did well with those tests.
First base (1): Anthony Rizzo
The only question surrounding Rizzo this spring is whether the veteran first baseman might be able to pen his name on an extension before Opening Day arrives. On the field, Rizzo has been locked in, hitting .370/.485/.741 with three homers, five walks and eight RBIs through 11 Cactus League games. Rizzo is poised for his ninth straight Opening Day assignment for the Cubs. Dating back to 1900, only Mark Grace (12 from 1989-2000), Ernie Banks (nine from 1962-70) and Charlie Grimm (12 from 1925-36) have had at least that many consecutive Opening Day starts at first base for the franchise.
Second base (1): David Bote or Nico Hoerner
With less than two weeks left until the season opener, all signs point to the primary job at second winding up in the hands of either Bote or Hoerner. And, if Hoerner wins that post, Bote could still have a home on the Cubs' roster as a part-time starter, utility man and pinch-hitter.
Chicago has also looked at Ildemaro Vargas and Eric Sogard (non-roster) for playing time at second base, but they increasingly look like candidates to be on the bench as versatile utility options. There could still be a scenario in which Hoerner opens at the alternate site if Chicago sees things in his offensive approach that clearly need more development.
Third base (1): Kris Bryant
Bryant has been slow out of the gates in the power department this spring, but the third baseman broke out of that funk in a big way Saturday. The third baseman launched one of his vintage home runs, sending a towering shot to the back of the berm at Sloan Park against the Rockies. Ross has seen positives within Bryant's approach -- see his six walks and .375 on-base percentage through 11 games, for example -- but noted that the third baseman has been using the spring climate to test some swing adjustments. All of that said, Bryant's place on the roster is as secure as anyone's for Opening Day. He will man third, potentially backup Rizzo at first, and could occasionally help in the outfield.
Shortstop (1): Javier Báez
Through 12 Cactus League games, Báez has 12 strikeouts and just one walk, showing that his free-swinging style is still very much intact. There have also been a couple prodigious home runs and a handful of spectacular plays at shortstop. Ross has emphasized that he wants the Cubs' core hitters to be themselves and play "a little selfish" this season. That certainly applies to Báez, who is entering a walk year like Rizzo and Bryant. What will be interesting is seeing where Ross slots Báez into the lineup come Opening Day. Down the stretch last year, Báez was moved into the Nos. 6-7 range. One thing Báez hopes helps give his offense a boost in-season is the return of in-game video analysis and having fans in the stands again.
Outfield (4 or 5): Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Joc Pederson, Jake Marisnick
Marisnick was slowed at the start of camp with a right calf setback, but he has shown over the past week that he is doing just fine. He has returned to the field, has manned center field without issues and has flashed some power in the batter's box. Given his recent progress, it looks like he can be slotted into the fourth outfielder role.
The starting trio will consist of Pederson in left, Happ in center and Heyward in right. Late in some games, expect to see Ross move Happ to left and insert Marisnick in center for defense. The Cubs plan on giving Pederson a chance to start against lefty pitchers, but Marisnick offers a fallback plan should that approach falter as the season progresses. Veteran Cameron Maybin (non-roster) is also in the hunt for an Opening Day job, so it's possible that Chicago carries five outfielders.
Utility (2 or 3): TBD
Let's say for the moment that Hoerner wins the job at second base. That would move Bote into a utility role on the bench. From there, things get a little complicated.
One unknown right now is whether the Cubs will be fielding a four- or five-man bench. If Chicago opts for the latter, that makes it easier to carry Hoerner and Bote, while weighing what to do with Sogard and Vargas. Sogard is not on the roster, while Vargas is out of Minor League options. They both offer a lefty bat (Sogard hits only left-handed and Vargas switch-hits) and each can fill in all over the infield. Vargas has even seen action in the outfield. There is a lot to consider, along with whether Maybin has a home on the Opening Day roster. If the Cubs want to break camp with Maybin, it could be a Sogard or Vargas decision for Chicago.
Starting pitchers (5): Kyle Hendricks, Zach Davies, Jake Arrieta, Trevor Williams, 1 TBD
Nothing has changed on this front. The first four jobs (Arrieta, Davies, Hendricks and Williams) are virtual locks. Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills look like the leading contenders for the last opening, but it's still worth noting that the Nos. 4-5 slots could be fluid in this unique 2021 campaign. Jumping to 162 games from 60 will be a challenge for every team, and the Cubs' initial plan is to be flexible with its innings blueprint. Alzolay and Mills could slide between the rotation and bullpen.
Veteran Shelby Miller (non-roster invitee) is another swingman candidate and he has opened eyes this spring. Chicago knows it will likely need at least seven or eight starters -- and maybe more -- to get through the coming season. One factor that remains unsettled is whether Alzolay has a Minor League option for 2021. If Alzolay has no options, he'll be on the Opening Day roster in some capacity. If he is granted a fourth option year based on the odd circumstances in '20, Alzolay could start the year at the alternate training site.
Relievers (8): Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Chafin, Ryan Tepera, Dan Winkler, Brandon Workman, Jason Adam, 2 TBD
Recently, Ross has pointed to the handful of off-days in April as being helpful for the pitching staff and he has emphasized his desire not to be caught short-handed on the bench. That makes it seem now like the Cubs are leaning toward carrying a five-man bench and an eight-man bullpen. Five jobs are seemingly locked in with Chafin, Kimbrel, Tepera, Winkler and Workman. We'll add Adam to that grouping now, given his emergence down the stretch last year. If there was any give in that list, perhaps Adam or Tepera could move to the bubble.
For the final jobs, things are complex. One of Alzolay or Mills could be in the bullpen if the other wins the fifth spot. Alzolay, as mentioned above, could also wind up at the alternate site if he has a Minor League option. Dillon Maples is out of options and he has looked intriguing with some retooled mechanics this spring. Miller has impressed and may earn a spot in the bullpen.