PITTSBURGH – With a 7 1/2-game lead in the National League wild-card race and a day off on Monday to re-energize before a big series with the Pittsburgh Pirates, let's take a look at what a Chicago Cubs wild-card roster could look like.
Yeah, it's a little premature, but so what? That's part of the fun of a playoff contender -- speculating who fits where and who might emerge as a game-changer.
There are two things to keep in mind when it comes to constructing a wild card roster:
The 25-man roster can be reset after the game in advance of the division series.
There's no reason to put all your starting pitchers on the roster. They're not needed.
This is just a one-game playoff so Joe Maddon can load up with relievers and specialty position players in case they're needed. The only question is how many of each to keep and who should they be?
Some history: In 2013, Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays played in the American League wild-card game and he kept nine pitchers and 16 position players for the game. In the National League that year, Cincinnati kept 10 pitchers and 15 position players; the Pirates went with nine and 16 as well. Pittsburgh did the same thing last season, and San Francisco kept 10 and 15 in 2014. So we know what the numbers could look like. For argument's sake, let's say Maddon keeps nine pitchers and 16 position players, as he did in 2013.
Right now the Cubs have exactly 16 position players on the roster, so Maddon could just simply keep that intact, though Jorge Soler should be ready soon as he rehabs an oblique injury. The Cubs manager admitted the presence of newcomer Austin Jackson changes the dynamic for Soler down the stretch, but it's not clear if that means he would be left off the wild-card roster. Here's what the roster could look like without Soler:
Obviously, the presence of Szczur and Berry are purely for pinch-running purposes. Soler could replace one of them, as Herrera has some speed as well.
Pitching decisions might be tougher. Maddon started Alex Cobb in the 2013 wild-card game, but had one other starter on the roster just in case. So let's assume Jake Arrieta and someone like Kyle Hendricks would be his two starters this time around. It's not likely he would put Jon Lester on the roster, as he would be the Game 1 pitcher in the next round if the Cubs advanced. So let's assume it's Hendricks.
That leaves one of three for the last spot: Tommy Hunter, Zac Rosscup and Carl Edwards. The Pirates have two key lefties in their lineup -- Pedro Alvarez and Gregory Polanco -- so Rosscup could be the guy, though he hasn't pitched much lately. He was devastating against lefties last season. Maddon needs to use Edwards these last couple weeks to figure out if he's a viable option after he gave up two ninth-inning runs on Sunday. Hunter has been used less and less and could be the first man out.
If the Cubs advance to the division series, that's when Maddon would have tougher decisions to make. Between now and the postseason, figuring out Soler and even Edwards' roles for playoff baseball should be the Cubs' No. 1 priority – besides clinching a postseason spot, of course.