Odd man out? Cubs’ outfield competition tight as Opening Day approaches

Cubs outfielders like Michael Hermosillo, Rafael Ortega and Clint Frazier are vying for a spot on the opening roster.

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The Cubs’ spring training outfield competition is heating up.

The Cubs’ spring training outfield competition is heating up.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — Outfielders Clint Frazier and Michael Hermosillo hit it off from the beginning of Cubs camp.

“He’s great,” Frazier said. “I feel like we’d be friends on the outside. So hopefully there’s enough room for both of us to get the shot that we’ve been trying to get.”

Setting a roster is a numbers game, and the reality is the Cubs might not have enough spots to carry all six outfielders who are still in camp with a week and a half left before Opening Day. Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association agreed to expand rosters by two spots to start the season, but with injury and ramp-up concerns surrounding pitchers in this condensed spring training, those spots likely will go to extra arms.

“But it’s not just how things will shake out performance-wise,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “There’s big-picture stuff that we look at as well.”

In right field, pencil in Seiya Suzuki, whom the Cubs signed to a five-year, $85 million contract this spring. Jason Heyward, who has shifted from right field to center, and Ian Happ also are projected to claim starting outfield jobs. Happ, however, underwent an elbow procedure in February, and the Cubs will be monitoring the stress to his throwing arm. They also could consider platoons, necessitating an extra outfielder or two.

If shortstop Andrelton Simmons’ recovery from a shoulder injury drags out, the Cubs might have another roster spot to fill. He has been dealing with soreness in the shoulder and is scheduled to throw Tuesday, but the Cubs don’t want to rush him back.

If Simmons, or anyone else, lands on the injured list, the Cubs could use that extra spot to hold onto the full outfield group of six. But they also could put a player such as Alfonso Rivas — who could add depth at first base and in the outfield — on the Opening Day roster.

“I think the competition’s been really good,” outfielder Rafael Ortega said through an interpreter. “I think it breeds results — it keeps us motivated. We have really good outfielders here.”

Ortega had a breakout 2021, especially against right-handed pitchers (.321 batting average). But he has had a slow start offensively this spring, going 2-for-16 in six games.

“I felt tense at the plate the past couple weeks,” he said Monday. “But yesterday I felt really good, just getting that rhythm back, just hopefully in time, hopefully be on the team for the season, having that going into Opening Day.”

Frazier, who signed with the Cubs in early December, on the eve of the lockout, entered Monday hitting .333 this spring. He has a minor-league option year, unlike Ortega and Hermosillo.

“I don’t think I’m a Triple-A player,” Frazier said. “And hopefully they don’t think the same and they look at me as a guy that can help them out for the next few years.”

Hermosillo’s first season with the Cubs last year was cut short by a strained forearm, but he said the experience was something to build from.

“I think I was able to show some things last year,” he said. “Obviously, I would have liked to have been a little bit more consistent and better pinch-hitting wise, but I think I showed that there is some ability there and that, you know, given an opportunity, that I can do some things.”

Hermosillo showed off his speed over the weekend when he hit a double behind the center fielder at Peoria Sports Complex. He flew all the way home.

Although this spring has been short, a lot can happen with more than a week left.

“The guys I’m competing against, I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with them,” Frazier said. “I think at the end of the day — I know it’s a cliche answer — but it is weird how these things work themselves out.”

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