CHICAGO -- What do you get for the team that has everything?
On Thursday -- Sept. 1 -- big-league teams will have full access to their 40-man rosters for the remainder of the season. The annual roster expansion means different things to different teams. If you're in contention -- like the Chicago Cubs -- you can add depth for the stretch run and additional strategic options for your manager. If you’re not, you can give experience to near-ready minor-leaguers who might be part of your major-league roster next season.
"We're discussing the call-up situation, the internal guys we might call up from Iowa, and if we do, whether it's Sept. 1," Cubs president Theo Epstein said, speaking in the dugout as the rain fell before Monday's 8-7 win over Pittsburgh.
With baseball's best record, the Cubs are in an odd tweener classification when it comes to defining their goals during roster expansion. Sure, manager Joe Maddon can always use more options. And clearly Chicago is not in the mode of giving minor-leaguers developmental time. But when your run differential (plus-218) is 57 percent better than every other team in the majors, do you really want to change anything?
"The goal is to win a World Series," Epstein said. "If as an organization you put yourself in a position to do it, you want to do it. So that's the ultimate barometer for whether it's a successful season or not."
That's the bottom line, and defines everything the Cubs do to prepare for the playoffs.
One clear benefit for Maddon is that having a few extra bodies on hand will allow him to better juggle both his lineup regulars and pitching staff in an effort to get everybody healthy and rested for the postseason run. Monday's game was a five-hour, 13-inning grinder that ended around closing time for many of the abundant water holes around Wrigley Field. Expanded rosters will help him maneuver around such exercises in stamina, though Maddon must get through two more days before reinforcements arrive.
With that in mind, let's look at some potential Cubs call-ups and what they bring to the table.
Carl Edwards Jr. was the only Cubs reliever who didn’t pitch in Monday's game. Maddon burned through eight pitchers during the contest, many of whom he did not want to use after the team arrived late Sunday night because of travel problems that came at the end of a 10-day road trip out West. There is no question that Maddon will want a couple of bullpen arms to add depth in that area.
"We pitched so many guys tonight I did not want to pitch," Maddon said. "I did not want to use Travis [Wood]. I did not want to use [Justin] Grimm. I did not want to use [Trevor] Cahill. I did not want to use Rob [Zastryzny]."
The Cubs' bullpen depth should improve over the course of September as the disabled list empties. Three core pieces of the relief corps are currently on the 15-day DL: set-up men Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop, and side-armer Joe Smith. Reports on Rondon and Strop were good on Monday, though their actual return dates remain up in the air. Rondon's sore triceps has been viewed as a minor issue and the decision to disable him was precautionary. Strop’s torn meniscus was more serious, but he’s already started throwing.
The expanded rosters should ensure the continued Chicago residencies of the call-ups already on hand to fill in for the disabled guys: Zastryzny, Felix Pena and Spencer Patton. Lefty Gerardo Concepcion pitched for the Cubs briefly in June and is on the 40-man roster, but he's struggled over the past month.
And of course there is free-agent veteran Jonathan Papelbon, who would need to sign in the next couple of days to be eligible for the postseason. While Epstein didn't address Papelbon directly on Monday, he did say, "We're at least considering a couple of external moves, but nothing too hot. There's a chance we don't do anything externally."
The Cubs got encouraging news about John Lackey, who threw a bullpen session before Monday's game. He's slated to throw another one and assuming his sore shoulder holds up, he’ll return to the rotation. While Lackey has been out, the Cubs have gotten quality spot starts from Trevor Cahill and Mike Montgomery. That's encouraging heading down the stretch and it gives Maddon solid options should he want to again drop a sixth starter into the mix to stretch out the rotation's rest days.
"We're going to get our starters rest in one form or another, whether it's watching their pitch counts a little bit more closely than usual or using spot starts or going to a full-blown six-man," Epstein said. "I don't think we're committed to any one way of doing it, we just want to make sure that we put our guys in position to be at their physical best going down the stretch."
Assuming Lackey returns with no complications, the Cubs probably already have every pitcher who will start a game the rest of the way already on the roster.
As with the other position groups, Maddon will get a boost from the disabled list when outfielder Chris Coghlan returns from the disabled list. And then there is Tommy La Stella, who was batting .295/.388/.457 in 122 plate appearances before being optioned to Triple-A Iowa to clear a roster spot. La Stella did not take the move well.
Since he finally reported to the minors, La Stella has hit .292/.358/.396 in 14 games. His left-handed bat will once again be a needed weapon for Maddon and addresses one of the few roster holes on the Cubs. Epstein has been encouraged by La Stella's play since he returned to the fold.
"It's been great," Epstein said. "He's getting ready to play up here, to help us. We expect to see him real soon."
You can also expect to see Albert Almora back at Wrigley Field. Almora looked like a future Gold Glover while filling in for Dexter Fowler earlier this season. Given Maddon's preference for removing Jorge Soler during late innings for defense, Almora gives him another option in that regard, as well as another pinch-runner.
One guy you won't see: Kyle Schwarber, who has missed virtually the entire season with a knee injury.
"No, he can't play this year," Epstein said.