The Cubs haven’t directly said that right fielder Seiya Suzuki won’t be ready for Opening Day, but Jed Hoyer and the front office do have that in mind and have hinted at that being the possibility. Suzuki is dealing with a moderate left oblique strain, which is an injury that normally has a 6-8 week recovery time.
Suzuki was scratched from the team’s first spring training game on Feb. 25. An MRI later revealed the oblique strain that had been bothering Suzuki in the days leading up to the Cactus League opener.
Suzuki missed a big chunk of his first season with the Cubs because of a finger injury and this time around he doesn’t want to rush back or play through the oblique strain, especially because it’s the first time he’s had this type of injury in his career.
So with the likely outcome of Suzuki missing a week or two at the start of the regular season, there are a handful of players who now have a better chance at making the Cubs Opening Day roster as the depth chart gets slightly adjusted at a few spots.
The Cubs signed Trey Mancini to be the team’s designated hitter, while also having a solid backup option at first base. However, now Mancini could be the Opening Day right fielder without Suzuki. While Mancini has primarily played at first base when starting on the field, he has played in the outfielder in more than 300 games during his MLB career, including 98 games in right field.
As far as splits go, Mancini has put up similar numbers against both right-handed pitching and left-handed pitching. (.786 OPS vs. RHP, .790 OPS vs. LHP)
While Mancini could be the main fill in for Suzuki in right field, non-roster invitee Mike Tauchman is making an early case to win a bench job. The 32-year-old has a connection to the team, not just growing up a Cubs fan in the Chicago-area, but Tauchman previously worked with current Cubs director of hitting Justin Stone.
Tauchman has played in 257 MLB games, with the Colorado Rockies and New York Yankees. The left-handed hitter has slashed .231/.326/.378, in 667 MLB plate appearances. He’s always shown a good eye at the plate, carrying a career 12 percent walk rate in the majors. Tauchman’s best season came in 2019, when he hit 13 home runs with the Yankees in 87 games and posted a 128 wRC+.
Early on in spring training, Tauchman’s gotten some tough hits against left-handed pitching that has caught the coaching staff’s attention.
Tauchman can easily fit on the Cubs bench as the fourth outfielder. And a lefty bat off the bench is nice to have, too.
Another candidate who now has a better chance at making the Opening Day roster is right-handed hitting Nelson Velázquez. He made his MLB debut in 2022 with the Cubs and in 77 games he had an 87 wRC+, hitting six home runs with a .205/.286/.373 slash line. Like a lot of young hitters, Velázquez struggled with strikeouts, doing so 31.6 percent of the time in 206 plate appearances. On a positive note, he did have a 9.2 percent walk rate.
Velázquez did have a solid .756 OPS hitting against lefties during his rookie season. If he wants to stick around, he’ll have to improve against the righties.
Right-handed hitting outfielder Ben DeLuzio also has an outside chance of making the Opening Day Roster as the fourth outfielder. He’ll be playing for Italy in this year’s World Baseball Classic. DeLuzio has phenomenal speed and uses it to play incredible defense. Ideally, he’d be a pure bench guy with Suzuki healthy, so it’ll be interesting to see how the Cubs value him as a potential starter because he doesn’t have a strong track record at the plate.
It may only be spring training, but one thing you’ve noticed early on is that Christopher Morel hasn’t had a lot of playing time at third base. The Cubs have a lot of guys in the mix at third base and for one of the bench spots. However, it seems as though Morel could be the most notable odd-man out on the Opening Day roster.
Morel came out of nowhere in 2022 and was one of the bright spots on the team, especially through his first few months up in the majors. He hit 16 home runs and had a .741 OPS, showed flashes of great defense and a cannon of an arm. However, from August until the end of the season, Morel struck out 38.2 percent of the time and only had a .633 OPS in his final 152 plate appearances.
Although you would think that with Suzuki out and Morel’s ability to play in the outfield and all over the infield would make him a lock on the roster, you also have to consider that he may not get regular playing time. At the end, Morel beginning 2023 at Triple-A, where he could get consistent at-bats could better benefit him in the long-term. Morel went straight from Double-A to the majors last year after only playing in nine games at Triple-A in 2021.
Meanwhile, for some of the other guys competing for playing time, Suzuki’s absence has given them a bigger opportunity.
As long as Patrick Wisdom stays healthy, he’ll be on the roster, mostly playing third base, but he can also fill in for Suzuki in right field. Nick Madrigal has been getting a lot of playing time at third base early in spring training and if he’s healthy then he can be one of the backup infielders too.
The guy who may benefit the most early in the season because of Suzuki’s oblique strain might come down to Edwin Rios vs. David Bote. If Mancini is the primary starter in right, then Rios can give the Cubs a left-handed power bat at DH, while providing depth at the corner spots in the infield. As for Bote, he’s on fire again, as he’s known to be during spring training. He’s getting paid no matter what, but maybe he gets one more shot with the Cubs?
Who would you want to see filling in for Suzuki and who should get that last bench spot on Opening Day? We talked about the Cubs without Suzuki and other spring training position battles on the last Pinwheels And Ivy Podcast.
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