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For Chicago Cubs' bench players, it's all about versatility

Published: Thursday, March 16, 2017 5:28 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Joe Lewnard)
Joe Lewnard – jlewnard@dailyherald.com The Cubs' Tommy La Stella celebrates a well-executed play during a spring training game at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona.

Who will be the bench players and role players for the Cubs in 2017?

Everybody. And that includes the pitchers.

After two years of watching Joe Maddon manage, fans realize by now that anything is possible and that players might find themselves at multiple positions in any one game.

Kris Bryant may start at third base, move to left field, go back to third base and then move to right field. He said during the early days of spring training that he has all of his gloves with him.

Javy Baez might start at second base, move to third and finish at shortstop, with Ben Zobrist ending up at second after playing the outfield.

And pitchers better have their spikes ready in case they’re needed to pinch hit, pinch run or play left field (before going in to pitch) in a long game.

Coming off a world championship with essentially the same team, the Cubs have had a notable lack of position battles during this spring training.

When looking at how the Opening Day 25-man roster shakes out, it will be important to count the number of pitchers the Cubs keep. The likely number is 13 instead of 12, and that means we’re likely to see a battle for the final bench spot between outfielder Matt Szczur and infielder Tommy La Stella.

Szczur and La Stella provide interesting options for Maddon. Szczur is an athletic and speedy outfielder who can provide occasional pop. He is out of minor league options, and if the Cubs were to put him on waivers to send him to the minors, it’s highly likely another club would claim him.

Last year, Szczur played in 107 regular-season games and put up a line of .259/.312/.400 with five homers and 24 RBIs. He was left off the postseason roster for each round as the Cubs preferred young prospect Albert Almora Jr.

La Stella has been with the Cubs for two seasons, but he has not been able to stay on the field. Injuries derailed his 2015 season, limiting him to 33 big-league games.

Last year, La Stella balked at being sent to the minor leagues, citing personal reasons. But the Cubs stuck with him. In 74 games, La Stella had a line of .270/.357/.405 with two homers and 11 RBIs. The Cubs always have liked the on-base ability he showed in the minors while in the Atlanta system.

If La Stella vs. Szczur is the final roster battle, it could go down the last week of spring training. Either way, Maddon will have 25 guys ready for action each day.

Kyle Schwarber is the likely Opening Day left fielder, but Maddon no doubt will take him out of games for defense in the late innings. That could open a role for Szczur, or it could mean that whoever does not start in center field – Jon Jay or Albert Almora – will go into left field late in games.

If Maddon decides to move Bryant and Baez around during games, La Stella is a logical replacement when either of their positions is vacated.

Schwarber is the No. 3 catcher on the depth chart behind Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero. When Schwarber isn’t in left field, he could get the occasional start behind the plate, or he could help in extra-inning games.

The Cubs will get to use the designated hitter early this season when they travel to Fenway Park to meet the Boston Red Sox on April 28 to 30. Maddon professes to prefer the National League game over the way it’s played in the American League, but he has to be liking the prospect of using Schwarber as his DH for those games at Fenway. It could be something to file away for the fall.

• Follow Bruce Miles on Twitter @BruceMiles2112.

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