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Cubs overhaul player-development strategy

Club hopes R&D, pitching lab help foster next long-term core
@Russ_Dorsey1
January 19, 2020

CHICAGO -- There’s been a major overhaul in Chicago, and not one that many have come to expect. While the Cubs’ roster looks similar to the one that finished in third place at 84-78 in 2019, the team’s player-development infrastructure and processes have seen a significant makeover this offseason. The

CHICAGO -- There’s been a major overhaul in Chicago, and not one that many have come to expect.

While the Cubs’ roster looks similar to the one that finished in third place at 84-78 in 2019, the team’s player-development infrastructure and processes have seen a significant makeover this offseason. The goal? Being better equipped to find and develop the next wave of core players in Chicago.

“I think what fans mostly focus on, and rightfully so, is Major League transactions over the winter,” general manager Jed Hoyer said on Saturday during Cubs Convention. “So much of our job is taken up not only on Major League transactions, but also making sure that we have the right infrastructure to support everything in baseball.

“In some ways, this has probably been our most active winter that we've ever had. We looked at things and decided that the game is moving incredibly fast when it comes to player development, when it comes to research and development, and we made a lot of big changes. We thought it was time.”

Why changes were needed?

The Cubs have been considered innovators in both player development and research and development (R&D) while reaching the postseason in four consecutive seasons, from 2015-18.

But as the Cubs have enjoyed success in that stretch, including a World Series win in 2016, other clubs have caught up with their player development and R&D infrastructure.

“We just know where the game’s going and where the game’s trending. There’s so much opportunity to try and gain a competitive advantage,” new senior director of player development Matt Dorey said. “I think we had to just take a step back, take a deep breath and really evaluate where we were at. I think it’s making sure we’re the leader and not the follower. ... We owe that to our organization and to our fanbase.”

What changes have been made?

The Cubs have invested their resources throughout their Minor League system this winter, by placing nutritionists at each level, ensuring players have the best possible facilities with a new performance center at Class A South Bend, with another coming to Double-A Tennessee, and improved R&D and hitting and pitching labs.

Fans have commonly heard president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and Hoyer discuss hitting or pitching labs over the past few years, referring to the Cubs' Spring Training facility in Mesa, Ariz.

When a player goes to the “lab," they undergo an R&D evaluation and exploit its results to see how they can improve a player’s on-field product. Having technologically sound instructors and experienced coaches at each level to help disseminate that information has also been a top priority.

The team has added even more tech under the leadership of new director of hitting, Justin Stone and director of pitching, Craig Breslow.

“Tom [Ricketts] has been tremendous every step along the way. ... All the technology or support we've asked for, we receive,” Cubs director of player development Bobby Basham said. “And that's just become a bigger and bigger investment on our end. And it's really exciting.”

The Cubs have had a high success rate in position player development over the past five years, but the lack of pitching depth has forced the team to readjust.

“With the pitching, we’ve always had offseason programming. Whether it was strength and conditioning, nutrition or throwing programs,” Dorey said. “But we really have overhauled that. We’ve taken a look at each individual pitcher and really gone by what we feel like they need to prioritize with development and built out an individual throwing program based off of our assessment. Those assessments come from our scouting reports, our R&D evaluations, and the feedback has been great.”

The Cubs believe that these improvements can make a quick impact at the Major League level and affect the Cubs’ roster in 2020 and beyond.

Relievers Brad Wieck and Rowan Wick are two of the team’s recent examples of the pitching lab’s success. Wieck posted a 6.57 ERA in 30 games with the Padres in 2019 before being traded to the Cubs at the Trade Deadline. Following his trip to the pitching lab in Arizona, Wieck made his debut in Chicago as a different pitcher, finishing the season with a 3.60 ERA while increasing his strikeout rate from 28.2 to 47.4%.

Wick -- who came over in a trade from the Padres in 2018 -- saw his improvements right away by posting a 2.43 ERA and leading Chicago pitchers (min. 30 innings) with a .184 batting average against in 30 games.

“Generally, it’s pro scouting,” Epstein said. “We ask our scouts to try and find hidden value. With Rowan Wick, we thought based on our scouting test and a little bit of R&D analysis, as well when he was with the Padres, we thought if we gave him a spike curveball with how his arm worked and how he was gripping the ball, if we gave him the spike curveball, he would really benefit from that. Then we got him into the pitch lab with our coaches, he experimented with it, it worked and you saw the results.”

The uncertainty surrounding what could happen with the faces of the franchise over the next two years puts an onus on the player development staff to prepare for all scenarios.

“We know what could happen. I wouldn’t call it pressure. I’d call it opportunity,” Dorey said. “I think it’s an opportunity for players in our Minor League system to make this next championship Cubs club theirs. They could actually be a member of the core. The next core.

“I’m excited about the opportunity, especially the 2018 and last year’s Draft classes. I think they have a chance to move relatively quickly through our system so that if there is any lag time at the Major League level in ‘20 or ‘21, these guys are going to be at the upper levels and ready to contribute.”

Russell Dorsey is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @Russ_Dorsey1.