5 factors weighing on Cubs' plans for 26th man

March 9th, 2020

LAS VEGAS -- David Ross remembers what it was like to come into a Major League camp as a young backup catcher blocked by more seasoned players. The Cubs manager said his approach back then was just to enjoy each moment rather than letting his mind drift into thoughts of his future.

"I caught a bunch of bullpens in big league camp like every backup catcher," Ross said with a laugh. "And I was like, 'Oh, this is cool. I get extra meal money.'"

The creation of the 26th roster spot has changed the dynamic for some players. A blocked third catcher now has a possible path to the big leagues. All those non-roster position players in camp can maybe push for a job, especially if they have one skill that can make an impact for a Major League team.

Right now, Ross is still in the midst of evaluating how exactly he wants to approach the new extra spot on the bench.

"I've come in with an open mind," Ross said. "Do you take more of a utility guy? Do you take more of a bat? A guy you can move around? A speed guy? There's just a lot of different options for us."

Here is a breakdown of the thinking involved in the Cubs' decision on the final bench job:

1. The first domino
Before Ross can go about building his bench, he and the rest of the Cubs' decision-makers must determine the winners of two other roster battles. Chicago's competitions at second base (David Bote, Daniel Descalso, Nico Hoerner and Jason Kipnis are the candidates) and in center field (Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ).

"That's why it's hard for me to make a statement to you guys, exactly," Ross said. "Those pieces are going to directly affect the other pieces and how all that shakes out."

2. A need for speed?
In the eighth inning on Friday, outfielder Ian Miller reached base with a bunt single against the White Sox. He then stole second, moved to third on a throwing error by the catcher and later scored on a wild pitch.

"Isn't that fun to watch?" Ross said.

Ross said this weekend in Las Vegas that Miller (42 steals on average over his last five Minor League seasons) has "definitely put himself in the mix" for the 26th roster spot. The fleet-footed outfielder was at it again Sunday, when he stole his MLB-leading eighth bag of Spring Training to set up a run. In 15 games this spring, Miller has also slashed .375/.469/.459.

"It's impactful," Ross said of Miller's speed. "He's definitely exciting to watch, especially a guy on a team where we don't have that really in our game too much."

3. Surplus of utility options
The alternative to giving Hoerner the regular job at second is to potentially use a pseudo-platoon consisting of Bote and one of Kipnis or Descalso. From there, Ross has to determine how much versatility needs to be baked into his bench. Specifically, the backup shortstop job is something to keep in mind, especially if Hoerner is at Triple-A to start the season.

Bote's calling card is playing second and third base, though he served as the backup at shortstop last season. Kipnis' MLB experience is mostly at second, with some outfield. The veteran Descalso (under contract for $2.5 million) can play second, third and first. Hernán Pérez is also in camp as a utility option and can man short, if necessary.

"I just want someone that complements the rest of the team," Ross said. "I don't want to have six utility guys."

4. A complementary bat
It was interesting that Ross included center field as one of the positions that will serve as a domino for the rest of the bench pieces. To this point, it has been assumed that Almora and Happ would both be on the Opening Day roster, but perhaps that is not etched in stone for the North Siders.

In Sunday's 8-1 loss to the D-backs in Arizona, outfielder Steven Souza Jr. (one of two D-backs players inked to an MLB contract over the offseason) got a test drive in center. Souza is coming back from a serious knee injury, but he was a plus corner-outfield defender prior to the injury.

"He's a guy that it's very sneaky how he moves and how well he moves for a big guy," Ross said.

Souza also offers a right-handed bat that complements the starting corner outfielders (Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward). Almora could also serve that role to an extent, while also offering plus defense for late in games he does not start.

5. Carrying a third catcher
Willson Contreras is the unquestioned starting catcher for the Cubs and the switch-hitting Victor Caratini resides in the reserve role. Throughout this spring, Ross has also raved about Caratini's hitting abilities, noting that he could play a big role off the bench as a pinch-hitting option.

If Ross wants to lean on Caratini often and without hesitation, maybe that opens an avenue to the Opening Day roster for a third catcher.

"When you've got the catching core that I have," Ross said, "and some of the best at-bats off the bench, when the other catcher's not playing, for me, it might be nice to have a guy like [non-roster invitee] Josh Phegley."