By Bruce Levine–
(CBS) How many pitchers are enough to combat the Nationals’ potent offense? Would a third catcher make sense? Can the 25-man roster afford a speedy-but-light-hitting outfielder as a part of the position-player mix?
All of these are questions for the Chicago Cubs to ponder in the next few days as they prepare for Game 1 on the National League Division Series in Washington D.C. on Friday evening. The makeup of a playoff roster can sometimes surprise, as rather obscure players who were brought aboard in August can sometimes grab a spot from a player who was a contributor for the entire season.
Starting with the Cubs’ rotation, the assumption as of Monday afternoon was that right-hander Kyle Hendricks and left-hander Jon Lester will start the first two games of the series in some order. Doing so would make both available to start a potential winner-take-all Game 5 on full rest, thanks to the two travel days built into the schedule.
On Wednesday, Cubs left-hander Jose Quintana and right-hander Jake Arrieta are slated to throw simulated games. For Quintana, that will be a tuneup for a Game 3 start next Monday or a Game 4 start the day after at Wrigley Field. The Wednesday outing for Arrieta is a more serious test to see how game-ready his right hamstring is after he suffered a strain in early September. Arrieta’s health is where No. 5 starter John Lackey could enter the roster equation. The smart money is on Lackey being added to the bullpen in a long-relief role and ready to get fired up should Arrieta run into a health problem or another starter be ineffective early in a game.
Wade Davis, Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Brian Duensing and Mike Montgomery are locks to be in the Cubs bullpen. Despite lefty reliever Justin Wilson’s struggles, the Cubs will likely include him on postseason roster as another option against lefty-swinging Nationals sluggers Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy. Relievers Justin Grimm and Felix Pena figure to be left off the NLDS roster.
Lackey and Wilson being in the mix would mean the Cubs would carry 12 pitchers and have five position players available off the bench. Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo are locked into the infield more or less, with Willson Contreras catching.
The outfield is where there will be room for more movement. Jason Heyward is an everyday player, while the likes of Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist, Ian Happ, Albert Almora and Jon Jay fight for playing time as well.
With that in mind, the Cubs have a series of decisions to make. They carried three catchers in winning the World Series in 2016, and taking only Contreras and Alex Avila would mean that they’d be less likely to burn Avila as a pinch-hitter. But how much use would they get out of Rene Rivera by including him on the roster? It’s worth noting too that Schwarber can serve as an emergency catcher.
Another player on the roster bubble is outfielder Leonys Martin, a speedster and quality defensive player who hit just .172 this season. If the Cubs go with just 11 pitchers, he could sneak his way onto the roster as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement.
If the Cubs go with 12 pitchers, the choice may come down to Martin and infielder Tommy La Stella, both of whom are left-handed bats. If that’s the case, La Stella would likely have the edge, because manager Joe Maddon is a believer that he can get big hits and put together professional at-bats in close games, and the Cubs also have a host of other outfielders to choose from.
This much is certain: The Cubs have many options. On Sunday, Maddon had Heyward in center field and Zobrist rotating between a pair of outfield spots. Their postseason run, however long or short, will likely be marked by that versatility.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.