Prior to Saturday’s split-squad action, Joe Maddon gave Matt Szczur a ringing endorsement and indicated that Tommy La Stella would be willing to accept a AAA assignment. That all set up a pretty clear picture of the Cubs’ opening day roster. Or did it?
According to the Chicago Tribune’s Mark Gonzales, the Cubs are actively trying to trade Szczur. That the athletic outfielder is on the block isn’t necessarily a surprise, but this report does run contrary to what FOX’s Ken Rosenthal recently said about Szczur’s immediate future.
There’s a helluva lot of gray in this situation, though, so check out this excerpt and we’ll discuss the various qualifiers on the other side.
Two major-league sources confirmed Saturday the Cubs are trying to trade Szczur, who is out of minor-league options and could be claimed on waivers if he does not make their opening day roster.
Trading Szczur would enable the Cubs to carry a 13th pitcher. But perhaps of more importance, they would have more roster flexibility.
Infielder Tommy La Stella could open the season on the bench as a left-handed pinch-hitter. But La Stella also has two minor-league options remaining, which leaves him vulnerable to a demotion if the Cubs want to promote a sixth starter from the minors, perhaps as soon as during a stretch of 32 games in 34 days that concludes May 31.
First is the idea that Szczur could miss out on the roster, which seems unlikely based on what Maddon just said. Of course, that could all be part of the bigger plan to keep the outfielder’s value as high as possible. After all, positioning La Stella as the favorite to land the 25th spot effectively tanks Szczur’s trade value since no one would trade for a dude who’s just going to be cut.
Next is the statement that trading Szczur would allow the Cubs to carry a 13th pitcher, which would only be necessary if La Stella is also on the roster. Then there’s the idea that La Stella could be optioned in order to bring up a sixth starter, a la Justin Grimm’s yo-yo journey from Chicago to Iowa last season.
That does make a lot of sense, though, particularly when you consider La Stella’s prior aversion to even a strategic demotion. If he’s told that he’s both desirable and somewhat fungible, but that he’ll only go down temporarily to allow for an occasional extra starter, he could very well be amenable to it.
On the other side of that coin is that idea that the Cubs’ sixth starter may very well be on the roster in the form of Mike Montgomery. There’s something to be said for calling up a stretched-out Rob Zastryzny, Eddie Butler, or Alex Mills (assuming all open at AAA), but using Monty as a swing starter avoids any roster crunching and follows Maddon’s talk of a “hybrid” role.
So where does this leave us?
Here’s how I see it: neither Szczur nor La Stella will play an integral role — not that they’re not capable players, just that either seeing significant time means something went wrong higher on the depth chart. As such, the former provides better value to a potential trade partner, due in no small part to the latter’s stated refusal to play if traded. As such, the Cubs are floating Szczur to find out what they can get in return.
If said return is not viewed as roughly commensurate with what they gain by having him on the roster, they keep him and assign La Stella to Iowa to open the season. I’ve been saying for a while that Szczur’s the most likely trade chip at this point, but they won’t trade him just for the sake of clearing up the roster.
“We haven’t decided on anything or everything yet,” Maddon said of the fluid situation. “Stuff happens in a very short period of time. (Szczur) is a major league player. So we’ll just wait a couple more days to see how it plays out, but he is a benefit to any group that has him [emphasis mine]”
In short, nothing is set until it’s set. And even then it might not be set. But it does sound like Cubs have Szczur on the block and are just going to read and react to what happens with that over the next week and beyond.