MESA, Ariz. — Maybe they don’t have a leadoff man. Debate the closer situation all you want.
But when it comes to the 25-man roster, the Cubs might be the only team in the majors without a position battle as the exhibition season starts Friday.
“You’re right. It’s probably pretty close to being set,” said manager Joe Maddon, who didn’t have this much roster certainty heading into camp, barring injury, even in 2016. “However, stuff happens.”
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This is an especially rare luxury, without so much as a bench job or an end-of-the bullpen opening if everyone’s healthy. Assuming the Cubs can avoid enough “stuff,” the offseason additions of Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood lock in a five-man rotation that also includes Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. With sixth starter Mike Montgomery sliding to the bullpen, the relief staff is the rare group of eight proven performers with guaranteed contracts and/or roster assurances.
“It’s pretty crazy,” said one of those relievers, Justin Grimm, who hasn’t experienced a camp like this in seven big-league seasons with two teams. “At the same time, we’ve all got jobs to do, and staying healthy is part of your job, and just bringing it every day and being ready to go.”
Newcomer Brandon Morrow, who signed a two-year deal after helping eliminate the Cubs in the playoffs last fall, said this camp reminds him of his Dodgers team a year ago.
But even that team had a bench job or two to settle.
“That’s what separates the teams at the top,” said Morrow, who was signed to replace Wade Davis in the closer role. “Obviously, both clubs boast pretty impressive depth, and a lot of guys on both sides that would be starting on other clubs know that unfortunately they’ll have to be coming off the bench or probably even starting in AAA.”
How unusual is it to have all 25 roster spots filled, barring injury,
before a spring game is played? Consider that even the loaded World Series-champion Astros have a left-field starting job open and a job battle at the end of their bench. The Dodgers have to sort out some of their outfield and could have some drama at the end of the rotation by mid-March. And the Yankees have battles at second base, backup catcher and at least one bullpen spot.
For the Cubs, the next month is about health and first impressions for top-depth guys who might be considered when the need arises in April or May. But this doesn’t mean the Cubs don’t have at least a few players and position areas worth watching, including:
• Backup catcher. The job is Chris Gimenez’s to lose, with talented 2017 rookie Victor Caratini next in line but projected as the everyday catcher at Class AAA Iowa for at least one more year. Gimenez, 35, got a lot of attention when he was signed for being Darvish’s personal catcher for part of a season in Texas, but more important, the Cubs like his experience, skills and poise in a career backup role.
• Bullpen depth. Hard-throwing right-hander Dillon Maples, who debuted in September, and lefty newcomer Dario Alvarez could be candidates for the first call if the pen needs help, depending on how ready they look by the end of camp. Another pair of newcomers, Shae Simmons and Luke Farrell, are among those who could pitch their way into that mix.
• Utility outfielder. Albert Almora Jr., Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist fill the Cubs’ outfield for now. But Peter Bourjos, a veteran of 813 big-league games for four teams, was signed as insurance and could become a factor this season.
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