Diving into the playoff roster

MLB: Chicago Cubs at San Diego PadresThis week, reports are that Joe Maddon and his staff are sitting down to have their initial discussions on the roster for the first round of the playoffs. With the division already locked up and it all but a foregone conclusion that the Cubs will also clinch home field advantage through the NLCS at some point over the next week, the playoff 25-man becomes the next obvious outlet for fan obsession.

To begin, I’m going to make a couple of assumptions, which may or may not be accurate:

  • Maddon will opt for a split of 12 pitchers and 13 position players. Theoretically, he could also do an 11-pitcher/14-position player split, as seven bullpen arms should theoretically be more than enough for a best-of-five series preceded by four off days. But, for the sake of bullpen matchups, I’m going to assume a 12/13 split.
  • Everyone will enter the playoffs healthy. Specifically, Jorge Soler and Pedro Strop.

With those two housekeeping notes out of the way, my read is that there are essentially 20 of the 25 roster spots that are a given. They are as follows:

Pitchers

  1. Jake Arrieta
  2. Jon Lester
  3. Kyle Hendricks
  4. John Lackey
  5. Aroldis Chapman
  6. Hector Rondon
  7. Pedro Strop
  8. Carl Edwards Jr.
  9. Travis Wood
  10. Mike Montgomery

Position Players

  1. Dexter Fowler
  2. Kris Bryant
  3. Anthony Rizzo
  4. Ben Zobrist
  5. Jason Heyward
  6. Addison Russell
  7. Willson Contreras
  8. Jorge Soler
  9. Javier Baez
  10. David Ross

Again, assuming a 12-pitcher/13-position player split, that leaves room for two more arms and three more bats (or gloves, I suppose). Dealing first with the bullpen, Maddon and company will be selecting two arms from the following bucket of pitchers:

Jason Hammel
Justin Grimm
Trevor Cahill
Joe Smith
Spencer Patton
Felix Pena

I know, technically, there are a few more options (Rob Zastryzny, for example), but being realistic I think it’s a certainty the two additional bullpen arms will come from this list of six. My personal preference would be to select Hammel and Cahill.

Personally, I like the comfort of having a starter in the bullpen – especially one who has been as good at home as Hammel, considering the Cubs will have home-field advantage in the NLDS. But more than that, I like the idea that if, for example, Lester comes out and gets smacked around in the first inning, Maddon still has the option to bring a starter out of the bullpen who can eat up six-plus innings.

That leaves one additional spot, most likely to be filled by one of Grimm, Cahill or Smith. As I alluded to above, my choice would be Cahill. But that’s not to discredit just how good Grimm has been in the majority of his last 15 or so outings. Rather, my thought process is that Grimm is predominantly a strikeout pitcher, and the Cubs already have a slew of arms in the pen capable of collecting a K when needed. Chapman, Rondon, Strop and Edwards all fit that bill.

What they’re missing is a ground ball pitcher who has the ability to induce a double play. That leaves Smith and Cahill as the two most obvious options, and to be blunt, I don’t trust Smith. He’s had some nice outings since joining the Cubs, but he’s also had some absolute disasters. Cahill has been more reliable, and so he gets the nod.

With that settled, let’s move on to the three available bench spots. This one is a little more simple, as there are only four players who realistically have a shot at the three openings:

Tommy La Stella
Matt Szczur
Albert Almora Jr.
Miguel Montero

In my mind, Szczur is an obvious inclusion. He’s been stellar off the bench this year, putting up a slash line of .267/.313/.333 as a pinch hitter, and is one of the faster runners on the team. La Stella is another obvious inclusion, even in spite of his little temper tantrum earlier in the season when he refused to report to AAA Iowa.

While I hate rewarding that kind of behavior, he’s been really good at the plate, batting .282/.373/427 on the year as a whole, and an even-more-impressive .325/.438/.400 in the second half. Add that to the fact that he’s left-handed (and actually hits lefties just as well as righties) and can play multiple infield positions and he’s a hard guy to leave off a roster.

That leaves us with one spot to be filled by either Montero or Almora Jr. Conventional wisdom would be that Montero gets the nod – he’s been on the team all year, he’s looked a lot better at the plate the last month or so and Almora Jr. is wildly inexperienced.

But I disagree. At this point, there’s really no reason to have Montero catch a game over Contreras, who has proven to be serviceable in the pitch-framing department (the one area where Montero is clearly better) while bringing a more-effective bat, a stellar arm and generally good defense to the party. Add to this the fact that Ross has actually been better at the plate and better at throwing out baserunners this year than has Montero, and basically what you’re left with is that Montero would be on the roster solely as a late-inning replacement to relieve a weary Contreras and save Ross’s legs for the following day.

I just don’t think that’s enough when you weigh the value of a third catcher against the defensive prowess of Almora Jr. Obviously, he doesn’t need to start. I don’t trust his bat to perform consistently at this point. However, gun to my head, I don’t think I can name four more naturally talented defensive outfielders in the National League. To me, that’s Almora Jr.’s value on this roster – as a late-inning defensive replacement.

To me, given that Soler, Bryant, Zobrist or Contreras will start the majority of the games in left field during the playoffs, Almora Jr. becomes an invaluable asset.

So there you have it. What are your thoughts?

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