Which prospects are going to get a strong look this Spring Training to make the Opening Day roster?
-- Sean D., Arlington Heights, Ill.
This should not come as any sort of surprise, but starter Adbert Alzolay would be atop that list. I'd say he still fits the description of "prospect," given that he's logged all of 10 games in the Majors in the past two seasons combined. MLB Pipeline currently has him sixth on the Cubs' Top 30 prospects list.
Right now, there are two projected openings in Chicago's rotation. From the 2020 cast, Tyler Chatwood, Jon Lester and José Quintana are all on the open market as free agents right now. Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks are locked into jobs, with Alec Mills having more than earned one of the remaining spots.
Alzolay currently looks poised to grab one of the other two vacancies. Just look at what Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein had to say about the young righty at the end of the season: "Going into the year we were hoping that Adbert could develop into a Major League starter, and now, we see one. And he's somebody that I think is primed to slide into the rotation."
That's a pretty big endorsement, and it's due to the strides Alzolay made at the Cubs' alternate training site (and in his handful of spot starts) in 2020. While away from the big league club, Alzolay focused on adding a slider that offered a different look from his curve.
In Alzolay's final two starts for the Cubs in September, the righty struck out 15 batters and walked four in nine innings combined, allowing two runs on four hits. In those two outings, Alzolay generated 15 whiffs out of 34 swings against his breaking balls. Epstein called the new slider a "Major League weapon" for the righty.
Beyond Alzolay, it's hard to predict right now if other prospects will be knocking on the door in Spring Training. Some of it could depend on what the roster looks like in the wake of any trades. For example, it'd take a trade for catching prospect Miguel Amaya to be in serious contention. And while top pitching prospect Brailyn Marquez could be arriving in 2021, the Opening Day roster doesn't seem realistic.
The Cubs' bullpen has internal depth, so it might take some offseason moves to push some prospects into the picture for the start of 2021. Maybe a lefty like Justin Steele could compete for a job this spring. Lefty relief prospects Jack Patterson or Burl Carraway would be more likely to factor into the equation later in the year.
What are the Cubs’ plans for replacing Jon Lester in the rotation? An in-house option or a free-agent pickup?
-- Tyler D. (@flythew26 via Twitter)
As noted above, Mills and Alzolay would seem to be the favorites to claim rotation spots, leaving the one opening. Even though the Cubs bought out Lester's $25 million option (paying a $10 million buyout), there is a chance he winds up being re-signed to fill that last vacancy.
Internally, the Cubs have starter candidates in Colin Rea and Tyson Miller, with prospects Marquez and Cory Abbott further down the depth chart. Under the circumstances, it would make the most sense for the Cubs to try to target a controllable, cost-effective starter through a trade or find a mid-tier solution on the free-agent market.
Now, of course, an elite talent like free agent Trevor Bauer would seem to be the perfect fit, but it just doesn't make sense with where the Cubs are right now. There is uncertainty about the team's payroll situation, a lot of money on the books for 2021 and a need to possibly shake up the offense. That makes trades more realistic than any blockbuster free-agent pitching signing.
With most of the core having one season left before free agency, who do you think will likely get moved for prospects or players with team control? Or [alternatively], do you think the core will remain fully intact for one more season?
-- Justin G. (@jaycubsfan8 via Twitter)
While I think there is indeed a scenario in which the entire core is back for 2021, I'd put Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber at the top of the list of players who could be traded. In Schwarber's case, it would help the Cubs to know if the designated hitter will be staying in the National League. Schwarber is a capable outfielder, but flexibility in role or roster would be advantageous for the Cubs or potential suitors.
Because Javier Báez is at such a premier position at shortstop and is entering his age-28 season, I'd say he's still a leading candidate for an extension. We'll see. I could also see the Cubs trying to keep Rizzo on a shorter extension beyond 2021, too. Even coming off a down year, Bryant might be the best option for addressing roster and payroll needs in a trade.