Ethan Roberts Looks Ready for MLB Return, Cubs Would Need to Clear Roster Space

Ethan Roberts was the feel-good story of spring training in 2022 when he broke camp with the big club after a strong performance in Mesa. That didn’t carry over into the regular season, however, as Roberts struggled with his control and was placed on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation after 7.2 innings across nine appearances. He was placed on the 60-day IL in late May to clear a roster spot, then was sent to Iowa for a rehab assignment on June 19.

Roberts made just three pitches in the game before exiting with the trainer in obvious discomfort with what was soon diagnosed as a torn UCL. Tommy John surgery cost him all of 2023, after which the Cubs non-tendered him and he elected free agency in mid-November. Roberts re-signed with the club on a minor league deal two weeks later and he made his return to live competition for the Cubs’ Arizona Complex League team on May 11. That perfect inning was enough to earn him a brief trip to Tennessee, where he recorded a scoreless outing with two outs and two walks four days later.

Roberts was then promoted to Iowa, where he’s built a streak of 8.1 innings without allowing an earned run. He’s surrendered just three hits and has struck out 12 with three walks using a cutter/sweeper combo that could earn him another shot in Chicago. Though his velocity is down a bit on both pitches and he doesn’t have that mid-90s four-seam — at least not for now — a sharp cutter at 91 mph and a sweeping breaker at 81-82 mph will play.

The big issue is that Roberts is not on the 40-man roster and would require at least a procedural move to make space for him. One possibility is Nick Madrigal going on the 60-day IL as a result of the broken hand he suffered last week in Iowa, though that doesn’t solve the puzzle of getting Roberts onto the active roster. Many have suggested parting ways with Kyle Hendricks, though that’s not a decision the front office will make lightly.

Many are going with the theory that they’re giving him until early July when he’ll reach 10 years of service time, thereby fully vesting in MLB’s pension plan. Craig Counsell said he was unaware of that wrinkle when asked about such a strategy, but it’s not like he can just come out and share that plan publicly even if he did know about it.

While Hendricks has been marginally better in relief than he was as a starter, he still isn’t missing enough bats or getting grounders at as high a rate. As much as it sucks to say about a guy who was so important to the best run of Cubs baseball any living person has ever seen, he can no longer be trusted for much more than mop-up duty. Even so, it’s really difficult for me to see Jed Hoyer pulling the plug on the beloved pitcher in the middle of the season.

Then again, perhaps another injury would land Hendricks on the 60-day IL, thus clearing the way for Roberts to come up. With the way things have been going for the Cubs, someone else will get hurt in the meantime. Lots of moving parts here and I’ve already spent too much time speculating. I just want to see Roberts back up in the bigs because he deserves a second opportunity.

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