How Will Cubs Playoff Roster Break Down?

With the end of the regular season less than a week away, it’s time to turn our attention to the playoff roster. This year’s task appears to be somewhat easier than those of the last two seasons, at least on the surface, due in large part to the continued solidification of the core players. With so many who deserve regular playing time, the ancillary spots are very limited.

The only major questions from my point of view come down to the pitching staff and who you include at the back end. Perhaps more difficult is who you leave off, particularly when it comes to the rotation. Let’s first take a look at my list of locks and bubble players, with the understanding that said bubble includes all those who aren’t locks.

Position Player Locks

Albert Almora Jr.*
Alex Avila
Javy Baez
Kris Bryant
Willson Contreras
Ian Happ
Jason Heyward
Tommy La Stella
Anthony Rizzo
Addison Russell
Kyle Schwarber
Ben Zobrist

Pitcher Locks

Jake Arrieta
Kyle Hendricks
Jon Lester
Jose Quintana
Wade Davis
Brian Duensing
Carl Edwards Jr
Mike Montgomery
Hector Rondon
Pedro Strop

Position Player Bubble

Victor Caratini
Rene Rivera
Leonys Martin
Mike Freeman

Pitcher Bubble

Justin Grimm
John Lackey
Dylan Maples
Felix Pena
Koji Uehara
Justin Wilson
Rob Zastryzny

As you can see, the position players are pretty well set at this point and could stay exactly as is in the “locks” section. However, I believe the Cubs will opt to roster more bats than arms with the shortened playoff rotation, which means adding one more player.

Unless, as you may have seen from Tuesday night’s game and/or the asterisk above, Almora’s shoulder bruise isn’t healed up fully in the next two weeks or so. X-rays were negative and there was no structural damage, so there’s reason to believe he’ll be fine, but we don’t really have a timeline yet. For now, let’s just assume he’s healthy.

We can eliminate Freeman without a second thought and the fact that they picked up Rivera to displace Caratini late in the season means that he’s probably got the leg up there. But unlike last season, when the triple-threat catcher thing was made necessary by Contreras’s emergence, I don’t know that the team sees the value in carrying three backstops.

Because Rivera offers little to no additional incremental value as a bench bat, I see Martin getting the edge. Whether it’s as a defensive replacement or pinch runner, the speedy outfielder gives the Cubs something that tiny bit of extra leverage that they might need when the pressurized chess matches of playoff baseball come around.

Should Almora not be ready to go, my guess would be that Rivera makes it in addition to Martin.

Ed. note: It has been brought to my attention that I was Wayne too veiled in my continued attempt to reverse-jinx Jon Jay, so I’ll make it clear that he’s definitely on the roster, likely at the expense of Martin.

So now that we’ve got that set, let’s move on to the real fun of the pitching staff. We can probably go ahead and eliminate Pena, Zastryzny, and Maples from the mix right away. They’re young and/or haven’t been getting high-leverage action during the recent run of big games, so I can’t see any way they find themselves pitching in the postseason.

That leaves us with with Lackey, Wilson, and Grimm, with the latter sounding like exactly what your prospects would be if you had to tell the former he’s not on the squad. However, Lackey did say earlier this season that he’s strictly a starter and that he’d just go on home if he had to pitch out of the pen. There’s no way he makes the rotation, which could mean having a difficult conversation.

If Lackey is serious about either starting or not pitching at all, he’s off. But if he’s willing to serve in emergency and/or middle relief, I could see it. The thing that worries me about him is that he usually takes a while to gather his momentum and hit his stride, which isn’t exactly what you want in a high-leverage reliever. He could be useful in a longer series, though, especially when the starters have been taxed.

Then you’ve got the questionable health of Arrieta’s hamstring, which could prompt the Cubs to roster Lackey as a piggyback/emergency starter. Arrieta says he’s still able to go out and pitch effectively, but also admitted that he’d changed his delivery to accommodate the hammy. If he’s really not 100 percent, Lackey makes sense.

Assuming he’s cool with it, we’re left with one spot. And that one spot is less about merit (of which there is little) and more about who you least fear having to go to late in a tight game. Which, yeah. Uehara hasn’t pitched since very early September and may not even be good to go, so let’s rule him out. That leaves us with Grimm and Wilson, and picking between those two is a dangerous game of Justin roulette that I wouldn’t envy anyone having to play.

In assessing the risk/reward balance between the two disappointing relievers, the odds had been stacked in Wilson’s favor until recently. He does have that godawful 10.34 BB/9 in his time with the Cubs, but his strikeout rate is superior to Grimm’s and he has only allowed one home run since June 13 (30 IP). And when you drill down, Wilson’s BB/9 mark was down to 6.30 against a whopping 14.40 K/9 over his last 12 appearances prior to Tuesday night. The fact that he’s a lefty with reverse splits works in his favor as well.

Except then you’ve got the matter of that wet fart of an outing Tuesday night in St. Louis, the one in which he threw six straight balls and was summarily yanked in the middle of his second batter. As you might imagine, the lefty for whom the Cubs gave up a pair of top prospects was none too pleased with his skipper.

For as bad as he’s looked at times, Wilson’s issues can still be corrected and positives he brings to the table outweigh those of the other guys vying for the spot. So when we’re talking about taking up the last spot on the roster, I’d say he’s still a safe bet. For now.

I’m probably way off on this one, but I do think Lackey will accept the opportunity to join the roster as a part of the bullpen. Maybe that’s because thinking of the conversation between Maddon and the crusty pitcher conjures images of Hannibal Smith (or maybe another fictional Hannibal) and the A-Team trying to coax B.A. Baracus into an airplane. And since I grew up watching that show during the same formative years in which my Cubs fandom took hold, you can perhaps understand the analogy.

The Cubs still have a little while to make any calls and developments over the next few games could tip the scales one way or the other, but there’s not much that can really change. Even so, it’s still pretty fun to break things down.

So where do you think I went wrong and who would you swap out?

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