Opening Day roster projection: A flurry of moves illuminate Cubs decisions

Cubs utility player Christopher Morel ducks to avoid being hit by a pitch in the fourth inning against the Texas Rangers during a Spring Training game at Surprise Stadium on March 07, 2023 in Surprise, Arizona. The Cubs optioned Christopher Morel to Triple-A Iowa on Monday.


MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs are close to finalizing their Opening Day roster. Another wave of players were called back to manager David Ross’ office Monday morning to learn whether they would be breaking camp with the team. 

The Cubs traded infielder Zach McKinstry to the Tigers for minor-league pitcher Carlos Guzman, outrighted Rowan Wick to Triple-A Iowa, and optioned Christopher Morel to Iowa. They also reassigned outfielder Mike Tauchman and left-hander Roenis Elías, both non-roster invitees, to minor-league camp.

Even three days before Opening Day, things could change before the Cubs have to submit their roster – if they wanted to add a player off waivers, for example. But here’s a prediction, based on the Sun-Times’ reporting, of how the roster could shake out. 

Rotation (5)

• RHP Marcus Stroman

• LHP Justin Steele

• RHP Jameson Taillon

• LHP Drew Smyly

• RHP Hayden Wesneski 

The rotation is set. Manager David Ross has named the Opening Day starter (Stroman) and the fifth starter (Wesneski). The other three are lined up to pitch in the order above.

The Cubs named Wesneski to the Opening Day roster after his first big-league spring training.

“I think we probably expected this, but not quite as quickly, honestly, ” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said of last year’s trade deadline deal to acquire Wesneski. “He’s thrown great. He was obviously really fun to watch last year, and then he’s carried that over and had a really great spring. 

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“Everyone talks about the ‘fifth’ starter role. Our expectation, hope, is he throws a lot better than what you’d consider a fifth starter, and he certainly looked like that all spring.”

Bullpen (8)

• RHP Javier Assad

• RHP Adbert Alzolay

• RHP Keegan Thompson

• RHP Brad Boxberger

• RHP Michael Fulmer

• RHP Julian Merryweather

• RHP Michael Rucker 

• RHP Mark Leiter Jr. 

Left-hander Brandon Hughes (left knee inflammation) will likely start the season on the injured list. That leaves the Cubs without any left-handed relievers. The club opened two 40-man roster spots by trading McKinstry and outrighting Wick, and one of those spots is expected to go to a pitcher.

Both right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. and lefty Ryan Borucki, non-roster invitees with strong track records against left-handed batters, have impressed the Cubs. Leiter is believed to have the edge. And the Cubs don’t want to lose him, with an opt-out built into his contract.  

Ross announced Monday that Assad made the Opening Day roster in the bullpen, as expected after his impressive spring.

“He’s pretty unflappable,” Hoyer said. “We’ve seen him go into New York and throw a gem, we’ve seen him pitch on a big stage in the [World Baseball Classic]. I don’t think anything really concerns him, and that’s wonderful. So, he certainly earned the job. And he earned the job, in part,  with how he threw in the WBC. That certainly opened everyone’s eyes and made it clear that in short bursts like that he can be really effective.”

Catchers (3)

• Yan Gomes

• Tucker Barnhart

• Luis Torrens 

The other open 40-man spot goes to Torrens. 

“The way he can catch and throw, the power he has, there’s a lot of reasons to like him,” Hoyer said. “He’s also versatile.”

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Torrens, who entered Monday hitting .316 with two home runs in Cactus League play, essentially sides into the role PJ Higgins filled last year. Torrens could be an impact bat off the bench or a designated hitter, and he has played some first base. The Cubs also value depth at catcher. And because of language in his contract, the team would have risked losing him if they had decided to only carry two catchers.  

Infielders (8)

• SS Dansby Swanson 

• 2B Nico Hoerner

• 1B Eric Hosmer

• 1B/DH Trey Mancini

• 3B Patrick Wisdom

• 3B Nick Madrigal

• UTL Edwin Ríos

• UTL Miles Mastrobuoni

McKinstry’s trade cleared up the Cubs’ bench picture. McKinstry and Mastrobuoni have similar  profiles, both left-handed batters who can play multiple positions. Mastrobuoni has been mixing in at right field lately, making him a candidate to help fill in for Seiya Suzuki (strained left oblique). 

Mastrobuoni has also been hitting well this spring, both in Cactus League play (.500 on-base percentage entering Monday) and the World Baseball Classic (5-for-18 with two doubles). And he has minor-league options left, unlike McKinstry.

Adding Mastrobuoni to the roster, however, makes Christopher Morel the odd man out. Morel has been on a tear, launching four home runs this month and going 3-for-4 with two doubles Saturday against the Angels. 

“He’s the nicest kid in the world and super upbeat, respectful; he’s awesome,” Hoyer said of delivering the news to Morel. “It was just like, ‘Hey, you’re just not going to play every day here. That’s not the best thing for your development. And when we do call on you, we want you to play. So go get a lot of at-bats, and when we need you and you’re playing great, we’ll bring you up.’ But for the role he was likely to be in for us, it didn’t make a lot of sense.”

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Outfielders (2)

• LF Ian Happ

• CF Cody Bellinger

The Cubs, of course, will put three outfielders out in the field every day. But they’re poised to fill Suzuki’s opening with a rotating cast. Mastrobuoni, Mancini and Wisdom are all expected to pitch in. But Suzuki may not be on the injured list for long, which played into their decision to leave Tauchman off the roster.

The Cubs have not announced a timeline for Suzuki’s return. And after his minor-league progression in Arizona, Suzuki will still need to go on a rehab assignment with an affiliate. But if he remains on schedule with his rehab, he could realistically return as early as mid-April.

Injured list

• Codi Heuer (60-day)

• Ethan Roberts (60-day)

• RF Seiya Suzuki

• LHP Brandon Hughes

• RHP Kyle Hendricks

Hughes was originally tabbed to throw in the Cubs’ game Monday against the White Sox, but instead he threw a high-intensity bullpen. That change in schedule will allow the Cubs to backdate the expected IL move. 

Suzuki was scheduled to play three innings on defense in a minor-league game Monday, Ross said. As long as Suzuki continues to progress smoothly, the team hopes to get him at-bats sometime around this coming weekend. 

Hendricks said recently that he’s scheduled to throw live batting practice by the second week of April.

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