Predicting the Cubs' Opening Day roster
Bullpen provides most opportunity for competition
A lot can change prior to Opening Day, but the Cubs' projected 25-man setup has little wiggle room at the moment. Barring something unexpected, Chicago's five-man rotation is set and the lineup and bench are occupied. The biggest source of competition for Spring Training will be in the bullpen.
With that in mind, and given what is known at the moment, here is a very early prediction for how the Cubs' Opening Day roster might look.
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Catcher (2): Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini
Contreras logged more innings behind the plate (1,109 2/3) than any MLB catcher last season and started for the National League All-Star team. The catcher faded badly down the stretch, though, hitting .169 with a .495 OPS in his final 45 games. Overall, Contreras had a .730 OPS, which was down from .855 in '17. The Cubs will be aiming to help Contreras tap back into his tremendous talent. Right now, Caratini represents the backup option.
First base (1): Anthony Rizzo
Mark this one in pen for the Cubs. Over the past five years, all Rizzo has done is average 30 homers and 100 RBIs per season with an .897 OPS in that span. Don't forget about the 105 times Rizzo was hit by a pitch in that time period, either. Last season, Rizzo hit .283 with 25 homers, 101 RBIs and an .846 OPS, and he took home a Gold Glove Award. After a rough April -- historically his worst month -- Rizzo turned in a .905 OPS.
Second base (1): Ben Zobrist
For the start of the season, Zobrist will likely garner innings at second base, though manager Joe Maddon may also lean on Daniel Descalso for this spot. When he's not at second base, Zobrist can also offer depth for the corner-infield and corner-outfield positions. The 37-year-old Zobrist -- in the final year of his contract with the Cubs -- had a solid season last year, hitting .305 with an .817 OPS in 139 games.
Third base (1): Kris Bryant
Bryant is looking to come back strong from a trying '18 campaign in which he battled a persistent left shoulder injury. The third baseman saw his slugging percentage drop to .460 last year -- down from .537 in '17 and .554 in '16. All indications are that Bryant is healthy, which would go a long way in getting Chicago's offense back on track. He resumed a hitting program in early December with no issues.
Shortstop (1): Javier Báez
Baez will begin the year at shortstop, while Addison Russell finishes a 40-game suspension for violating MLB's Domestic Abuse Policy. Last year, Baez was a walking highlight reel for the Cubs in a breakout showing that ended with him as the runner-up for the NL MVP Award. The dynamic middle infielder hit .290 with 34 homers, 40 doubles, nine triples, 21 steals, 101 runs, 111 RBIs and an .881 OPS.
Outfield (3): Albert Almora Jr., Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber
This trio projects to be the starting outfield with Schwarber in left, Almora in center and Heyward in right. Almora and Heyward are both elite defenders and Schwarber took a step forward in his defensive development in the outfield last season. Of the three, Schwarber stands out offensively, bringing the ability to hit the ball out of the park and get on base. Almora will be aiming to bounce back from an offensive slide in the second half of last season.
Utility (3): David Bote, Descalso, Ian Happ
Versatility is the biggest strength of the Cubs' bench. Bote can bounce all over the infield and play corner outfield in a pinch. Happ came up as an infielder, but can handle all three outfield spots. Descalso can hop between second and third base and offer another reserve option for the outfield, too. Offensively, this group offers pop, and any of the three would be fine as a part of a starting lineup. That will help Maddon maximize the platoon advantage when it makes sense.
Starting pitcher (5): Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, José Quintana
In this era of bullpenning and pitching specialization, the Cubs have five starters each capable of 180-200 innings. Darvish was limited to eight starts last year due to a right elbow injury, but has been throwing and said last month that he expects to be ready for Opening Day. Chicago's arms do not blow hitters away, but this is a veteran, experienced group with the potential to chew up innings, set up a bullpen effectively and run off a lot of quaility starts.
Relief pitcher (8): Tony Barnette, Brad Brach, Steve Cishek, Brian Duensing, Carl Edwards Jr., Brandon Kintzler, Mike Montgomery, Pedro Strop
This is by no means set in stone, but Tyler Chatwood and Montgomery will be bumped out of the rotation if Darvish is healthy and there are no setbacks for other starters prior to Opening Day. Chatwood's place on the roster will need to be sorted out during the spring, but the inn will be crowded after adding Barnette and Brach (not official yet) this offseason. Look for Strop to be the interim closer while Brandon Morrow recovers from right elbow surgery during the season's first month. Relievers like Duensing and Kintzler -- while under contract -- also need to show something after subpar seasons. There are some experienced depth options (non-roster and roster) and prospects waiting in the wings.
And here is a more condensed look at the Cubs' projected Opening Day roster.
Albert Almora Jr.
Carl Edwards Jr.