The Cubs finalized their minor league affiliate coaching staffs and coordinators for the 2021 season on Monday morning, announcing decisions that had probably been made long ago but had been awaiting official word on league structures.
It may have seemed like a series of formalities on the surface, but a deeper dive into these personnel choices and some of the unmentioned support staff choices reveals a few developmental trends worth mentioning.
At first glance, it looks like there are a lot of new hitting coaches. Actually, most were hired last year but never got a shot at coaching. From Dan Puente in Myrtle Beach to Rachel Folden in the Arizona Rookie League, the Cubs actually tapped into hitting director Justin Stone’s contact list of hitting gurus he has known for years though his Elite Baseball Training facility and program.
Why is Buddy Bailey back at Myrtle Beach? Simply put, he is a legend when it comes to teaching the fundamentals of the game by helping young players learn the daily process of being a professional. Myrtle Beach is the only affiliate with just one hitting coach, likely because Bailey has the experience to pick up the slack.
But in what stands out as something of an oddity in the system, the Pelicans have two pitching coaches. That’s because they’re now Low-A in a system that no longer has a short-season affiliate, so they will likely have a lot of teenage pitchers like Richard Gallardo, Davidjohn Herz, Tyler Schlaffer, Benjamin Rodriguez, and Koen Moreno.
Tennessee Smokies pitching coach Jaimie Vermilyea is a rising star in the system. The former Toronto Blue Jay is in his fourth year as a coach in the Cubs organization and has gone from Arizona to South Bend to now Tennessee. The 39-year-old has a quiet demeanor and is a great communicator who has worked wonders in developing Riley Thomson, Cam Sanders, and Brailyn Marquez in 2019. It could be that Vermilyea was assigned to Tennessee to continue his work with Marquez and Thompson.
Michael Ryan was slated to be the Smokies’ manager in 2020, but he is now going to be at South Bend. Ryan broke into managing in the Pirates’ system and should have a talented group of arms to work with in South Bend, including Kohl Franklin and possibly Ryan Jensen and Chris Clarke.
Mark Johnson is back to managing at AA after a two-year break. Johnson will be doing double duty this year as he is slated to retain his systemwide catching coordinating role in addition to his managerial duties. More than likely, Johnson is back as a manager specifically to work with Miguel Amaya in Tennessee.
Steve Lerud, who has managed at Myrtle Beach and Eugene, was not retained. Neither was Jimmy Gonzalez, a longtime minor league skipper for the Cubs. Those two appear to have been casualties as the organization went out and got some new coaches that better align with their recent shifts in development strategy as reflected in the philosophies of Stone and VP of pitching Craig Breslow.
While Bailey and Pevey might be as old school as it gets, they also know how to communicate with their players and develop them by making minor adjustments. As an example, take a look at what Bailey did with David Bote’s swing at Myrtle Beach in 2017. Bote wasn’t hitting well and had actually expressed a desire to walk away from the game, but a more aggressive approach that saw him ambushing fastballs and swinging to do damage turned his career around.
It may have also helped that Gleyber Torres had been traded the previous season, allowing Bote to get a little more playing time to build his confidence.
As had been noted back when word of the minor-league restructure first broke, the Cubs are only going to have one rookie league team each in Arizona and the Dominican this year. MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian noted that those squads will have rosters of 60 players, and we’re talking about the youngest prospects in the system, so it’s going to a bit of circus trying to develop them through game experience. We will keep a close on how that all comes together this summer.
While a lot of the latest moves were about maintaining continuity throughout a system that has undergone some changes after a lost season, more of it is about restructuring the way the Cubs develop players. They’ve been actively trying to be more aggressive on the pitching side and the overall trend has been to establish directors to set the tone and streamline the direction for the organization as a whole.
How that ends up working remains to be seen, but it may help the Cubs to really hit the ground running once the new season starts up.