Cubs add 3 players to 40-man roster; Sign 7 MiLB free agents this week
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Rule 5 Deadline
Yesterday marked the final day for Major League clubs to add players with Rule 5 eligibility to their 40-man roster in order to protect them from the draft. So, it was a busy day around baseball, as every team made additions, and many also made subtractions. The Cubs chose the contracts of third baseman Christopher Morel, and starting pitchers Cory Abbott and Keegan Thompson. The club did not designate any players for assignment to clear space, but that is because they already had plenty of flexibility there since they had so many players hitting free agency this winter. As of now the roster stands at 37.
That isn’t to say the Cubs won’t make some subtractions soon. The next deadline to keep an eye on comes December 2nd, when teams must decide whether to tender contracts to their pre-arb and arbitration eligible players. While there has been talk of high profile non-tenders to the likes of Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs are expected to tender both, but then try to trade them.
The most likely non-tenders come in the form of MLB veterans in their early years of arbitration who the club feels are not worth their projected salaries. Those names include World Series hero Albert Almora, failed trade deadline acquisition Jose Martinez, along with relievers Kyle Ryan, Ryan Tepera, Colin Rea and Dan Winkler. The projected salaries for each range from $900K to roughly $2M. Not all will be let go, but I do think both position players will (with Martinez possibly a target to re-sign on a MiLB deal) and at least one of the relievers as well (my money is on Rea and Winkler, with Ryan 50/50 in my mind).
As for the yesterday’s three additions, none come as a huge shock. Cory Abbott is a former 2nd round pick and Cubs 2019 MiLB Pitcher of the Year. He’s had success at every level thanks to solid control of four pitches, including a hard slider that is arguably the best in the system. While his velo tops out in the low-90s he has missed plenty of bats as his pitches all seem to tunnel pretty well. He finished 2019 on a real high note, as he 68 batters over 53.2 innings over his final 9 starts while holding the opposition to .108/.194/.205 line.
Abbott was scheduled to pitch in Iowa this season before the season was scrapped, and instead spent the summer in South Bend, where he apparently battled a nagging injury that kept him from competing for MLB time with the Cubs. He will likely open 2021 in Iowa as he jockeys with Tyson Miller, Justin Steele, Brailyn Marquez and Keegan Thompson to be the first call up should an injury strike the Cubs rotation. But Abbott will certainly be given a shot to compete for an Opening Day roster spot in Spring Training.
Thompson came to the Cubs in the same collegiate pitcher heavy 2017 draft class as Abbott. The Cubs chose Alex Lange (Detroit selected his contract yesterday) and lefty Brendon Little (who the Cubs left exposed to Rule 5 Draft yesterday) in the 1st round. After Abbott went in round two, the Cubs chose Thompson in the 3rd. Thompson progressed more quickly through the system than any of the others from the class, opening 2019 at AA with 5 innings of no-hit ball. Unfortunately it would be his final start outside of Mesa for the season as an injury wiped out his next three months. He returned to the mound to make a couple of appearances in the AZL before joining the Mesa Solar Sox for the Arizona Fall League, where he pitched well.
The 25-year old Thompson was once a prized recruit and hard thrower for the Auburn Tigers but injuries sapped a bit of the raw stuff and he was forced to remake himself into a pitcher rather than thrower. The hard work paid off as Thompson now varies his fastball, mixing four-seamers, two-seamers and cutters to keep hitters honest. His main secondary weapon is a curveball that backed up a little when he first turned pro, but has since flashed back to the pre-draft expectation as a potential plus pitch. He can supplement his repertoire with solid sliders and changeups as needed.
There are few, if any, prospects in the Cubs system who are as fun to watch as Christopher Morel. Wiry strong, with quick twitch athleticism and solid speed on the hoof, Morel is a flashy defender and baserunner. He is also a boisterous personality who clearly loves playing the game each and every time he is out on the diamond. While he’s played almost exclusively as a 3B (where he is a potential plus defender with excellent lateral agility and a powerful arm) and SS (his original position, where I have not doubt he could still fill in), Morel’s athletic profile leads me to believe he would be a capable defender anywhere on the infield or outfield.
He is more raw at the plate than in other aspects of the game. He is a classic Cubs uber-aggressive hitter. In 2018 he swung at basically everything and it led to a poor performance in the NWL and eventual demotion to the AZL. But in 2019 he toned down his aggression enough to only offer at pitchers in the vicinity of the strike zone, and at times even limited himself to pitches he could get good wood on. He still didn’t walk much, and his plate discipline will likely never progress beyond average, if it even gets there. But Morel does have good bat speed and barrel control which allows him to make contact and adjust to pitches outside his wheelhouse.
There is still plenty of work to be done if he hopes to consistently tap into his 20-30 HR power potential, but there are few bats in the Cubs system with his upside. I’m currently projecting Morel to open 2021 as the starting 3B in AA. I also expect the Cubs will begin moving him around the diamond and getting him exposure in the outfield as the prepare him for a potential role as a super sub down the line.
Cubs sign 7 Minor League Free Agents
Looking to round out their depth in Iowa this season, the Cubs have signed seven Minor League free agents over the past week or so, with a couple of interesting names among the group. First off, lets cover the returnees.
Center Fielder Ian Miller was re-signed after spending most of 2020 in the Cubs South Bend camp. The speedster was impressive in Spring Training but there is definite concern regarding whether he will ever hit enough to let his speed play on a consistent basis. Still, he gives the Cubs a pinch running and defensive replacement option that will be important given Billy Hamilton is a free agent and Albert Almora a likely non-tender.
Lefty reliever Jerry Vasto has actually been in the Cubs organization for two seasons but has yet to appear in a game. He was an effective pitcher as he ascended the Rockies system before eventually being traded to the Royals where he continued to miss bats and put up good numbers before getting a cup of coffee in Kansas City during the 2018 season. The Cubs claimed him on waivers after the season but injuries have limited him since. With uncertainty from the left side of the Cubs bullpen as of right now, the 28-year old offers potential veteran depth alongside Rex Brothers and Josh Osich who were both re-signed to MiLB deals earlier this offseason.
Vasto will be joined by another lefty with the potential to miss bats. Former Giants 9th rounder and Lake Forest native D.J. Snelten appeared in four MLB games back in 2018, but has since bounced around between Indy Ball and then spent this past season at the Tampa Rays alternate site. What makes the 6’6″ lefty intriguing is he has rebuilt his delivery and is now touching triple digits on the gun.
Another former Giant, utility man Abiatal Avelino, has signed on as well. A former top prospect, Avelino was a part of the Andrew McCutchen deal back in 2018. After putting up good numbers through the AA level, Avelino has struggled at both the MLB and AAA levels since, but according to scouting reports the 25-year old still plays solid defense at SS, and possesses the bat speed to generate good power. Unfortunately, he struggles to lift the ball, but if the Cubs can solve that issue there may still be a potential MLB player here.
Outfielder Rafael Ortega is former prospect who has hit at AAA (.296/.370/.446) but struggled to translate that success at the MLB level over 410 ABs (.229/.287/.290). At the very least he will provide the I-Cubs with a much needed potent left-handed stick.
Another addition in that vein is switch-hitting catcher Taylor Gushue. A former 4th rounder of the Pirates, he isn’t considered much of a defender, but he did mash 11 homers in 74 games for the Nationals AAA affiliate in 2019. He’ll compete for time with Utilitymen P.J. Higgins and Cam Balego behind the plate for Iowa in 2021 while Miguel Amaya likely opens in AA (but probably receives an in season call up).
Rounding out the signings is former Angels reliever Jake Jewell. He appeared in 28 games over two seasons in Anaheim, but suffered a gruesome injury in 2018 when he broke his leg covering home plate. He spent 2020 at the Giants alternate site.