Long before we were complaining about the Cubs’ failure to spend money on free agents, we were lamenting the organization’s failure to produce a homegrown pitcher. But now as we crawl through the offseason like Andy Dufresne escaping Shawshank, the only promise of freedom is a farm system that is going to have to start yielding new stars.
Sure, there’s still hope that Marquee Sports Network can make good on those wheelbarrows of cash that apparently disappeared in 2018. And with the Cubs only committed to around $40.5 million in payroll for 2022, there’s also an expectation that money will eventually have to be spent. The Cubs have only agreed to four guaranteed deals for position players since 2016, only one of which has been for more than one year.
Those contracts total just $16.5 million and none will be on the books after this year. Combined with the loss of several other key players, the Cubs’ refusal to add from outside the organization makes prospect development even more of a necessity than usual.
As such, vice president of player development Matt Dorey has got some serious pressure to ensure his talent pipeline doesn’t go the way of the Keystone XL. That won’t be easy after the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season stunted the implementation of the Cubs’ pitching and hitting infrastructures, but a new philosophy may have already begun paying dividends even during the shutdown.
Dorey joined Marquee’s Cubs Weekley podcast recently to talk with Cole Wright and Tony Andracki about a number of topics, including the revamped organizational philosophy, the progress of three young pitchers, Brennen Davis‘s ascension, and more.
On more aggressive philosophy
“Dating back pre-pandemic, we really took a hard look at what it means to be aggressive or less risk-averse. I think we had a pattern of potentially holding or putting some pretty hard caps on our young pitchers. And rightfully so, it’s tough to develop when you’re injured. But we also recognize it’s almost impossible to identify and really measure what’s more risky than not.
“Our whole model moving forward in player development, in pitching specifically, is being player-centric and allowing the players to have more ownership and guidance of how aggressive they wanna be. And so we’ve really put it back into their court through just doubling down on collaboration and communication with our players directly and making sure they’re the key stakeholder in their career.”
This is very similar to what Jason McLeod discussed in January of ’19 after it had already become far too clear that the old way wasn’t working. The Cubs had been drafting loads of pitchers and were aiming to simply keep them healthy and get them to eat innings. However, that strategy stunted their growth and led to the system falling well behind those of other teams when it came to improving performance and increasing velocity.
Who could help the Cubs in ’21
“On the pitching side, we saw Justin Steele get up there. He didn’t pitch and then he had a little bit of a hamstring issue following his call-up that…came at a really bad time for him because he was making such positive headway in South Bend. I think he’s a guy that has every opportunity to come in and win a job.
“This is an important spring training for Brailyn Márquez as well. We’re excited about Steele and Brailyn, those two left-handers with that kind of stuff coming into camp and potentially either earning a job out of spring training or being sizable contributors in ’21.
Dorey was very high on Steele and likened him to Márquez last year as well, so there’s not much new here. The context is different, though, as the Cubs have lost several pitchers this offseason and will have to lean more heavily on young guys as a result.
Cory Abbott adds one-seam to pitch mix
“He’s really spent a lot of time evolving and changing his body, he’s gotten into the best shape of his life [ding]. And he has some really unique pitch characteristics innately. They worked really hard on a one-seam fastball, they call it, it’s essentially his changeup.
“He has two above-average breaking balls, he has the natural righty cut fastball, his four-seamer, but we want him to try to get something else that could fill that void of a changeup. And so that fourth pitch is proving to be a nice compliment to his other pitches in his mix.”
Dorey opened by saying he’s got the most firsthand knowledge of Abbott from his time in South Bend and fall instructs, adding that the righty could be in the mix for a role out of spring training. I am very interested in the one-seamer, a pitch that seems to be gaining a little momentum in pitching circles in part due to increased understanding of seam-shifted wake.
A four-seam fastball travels straighter and has “ride” because the seams have more contact with the air. A sinker, on the other hand, generates less resistance and falls off more as a result. Depending on how it’s thrown, a one-seam should drop similar to a changeup and even have some glove-side run. I’m not sure exactly what Abbott’s looks like, but the grip in the image below is what I taught my son.
Dorey spoke about two other pitchers, namely Ryan Jensen‘s work on adding a curveball and Kohl Franklin growing an inch while adding 15-20 pounds of muscle. Franklin could easily be sitting 95-98 this coming season and has one of the best changeups in the organization, but, despite what we saw above, Dorey said they may actually have to rein the righty in a little bit to ensure he’s not going too big too fast.
Davis benefiting from lack of baseball experience
“Because he is so athletic…he can just do things that others can’t. He has unbelievable natural hand-eye (coordination), he makes really good swing decisions, and he’s just now starting to really tap into his power.”
Dorey said Davis actually benefited from not focusing on baseball in high school because he wasn’t set in his ways and offered the Cubs the opportunity to work with a “ball of clay.” His superior athleticism allowed him to adapt quickly to swing changes that might have been more difficult for other players.
The experience at South Bend, where he had to play against older and more experienced players, really pushed Davis to another level developmentally and just mentally.
Miguel Amaya‘s maturation
“He really matured in every part of his game [at South Bend] and he really lobbied to go play winter ball because he wanted to get more at-bats. He felt so good with where he was at offensively and defensively that he went to Puerto Rico…which we definitely supported.
“The plan for 2021 is still to be determined, we’ll see how it shakes out.”
P.J. Higgins got some love here as well, with Dorey saying the versatile catcher could do well in the majors if the Cubs needed him at some point. That could happen if the team ends up making good on all the Willson Contreras rumors, at which point they’d be without either primary catcher from last season. But hey, they’ve got Austin Romine.
Wow, that ended up being a little lengthier than I anticipated, and I didn’t even cover close to half of what Dorey had to say. Lots of great stuff, so be sure to check out the full pod for yourself.