Cubs Hope Philosophical Change Leads to Breakthrough in Pitching Development

Once heralded as the envy of all other teams, the Cubs’ farm system has been the subject of much consternation over the past few years. Most of that is due to the organization’s abject failure when it comes to developing pitching prospects, a topic that was front and center at the Down on the Farm panel that closed down the 2019 Cubs Convention.

Jason McLeod, senior VP of player development and scouting, took the stage alongside player development director Jaron Madison to address all manner of questions related to the goings-on in the minors. While talk sometimes strayed to which position players are next or what the Cubs look for in terms of makeup, it all ended up coming back to pitching. But in a bit of a change from the past few years, there are more signs of hope on the near horizon.

McLeod candidly bore the blame for the oft-noted lack of pitching development to this point, saying the Cubs had been far too conservative with their previous philosophy. They looked for safer bets they thought could be solid innings-eaters rather than reaching for guys with high ceilings that might project with a bit more risk. The results, well, they haven’t been good.

And it’s not just about the specific players they took, either. By instituting regimented development plans for each prospect, the organization sought to remove as much uncertainty as possible. Simply put, they attempted to make the development process more linear. But in doing so, they may have inadvertently stifled several arms by keeping them from really breaking free and showing what they could do.

Being less risk-averse with their draft picks and less structured with the subsequent development process could mean those waves of pitching we’ve been hearing about will finally reach the shores of Lake Michigan.

“We probably were a little more conservative back in the day,” McLeod explained. “As we thought about pitching, we tried to fit everyone neatly into a box. And so we put so many checks on guys, I feel, that we probably walked by some guys that didn’t meet certain criteria at the time. We were being probably a little too conservative.

“We wanted them to check so many boxes: Strike-throwers who we thought were going to be healthy who had this type of performance, whether it be strikeout rate, whether it be walk rate. That probably hamstrung us a little bit. We probably could have pushed guys in our early days and I think that as we sat here five years later, we discovered that we could have been a little more aggressive.”

With the rotation set and more than one option already available on the 25-man roster to replace the five starters, the quickest path for prospects will be in a relief role. There are several candidates for promotion, now it’s just a matter of who steps up and embraces the freedom of this updated philosophy.

Taking the shackles off and letting their pitchers really cut it loose is something we’ve not seen much from the Cubs to this point. One of the noted developmental issues over the past few years has been a lack of increased velocity among prospects. While teams like the Astros are seeing their prospects and major league pitchers alike lighting up radar guns, the Cubs have watched as their young arms remain somewhat stagnant.

“We have to re-evaluate what we’re doing because it hasn’t been working,” McLeod said. “So it’s really just that, looking at ourselves and what are some of the things we can do to change it up. Obviously you’re looking at what other teams are doing too, teams that have been increasing velocity or increasing swings and misses, and you look at all of that information and try to see what they’ve been doing.”

Technological advances have made it easier to monitor the workload and mechanical stressors of their young pitchers, but the Cubs aren’t using that as a safety net. And with a pitcher like Jose Albertos, who used a motusBASEBALL sensor and sleeve as he worked back from early elbow trouble, the issue may be more psychological in nature. He’s got to be able to trust himself to do what the Cubs want him to do, McLeod said, which is to remove his own internal limitations.

“There’s an overwhelming sense of urgency throughout the organization,” McLeod admitted. “I know Theo brought it up in his comments yesterday. And when I say that, I mean it’s an urgency in the sense of doing something to impact the organization. Not being complacent. Not being safe. Not being conservative.”

Hey, was that a political statement? Of course not, it was simply McLeod chiding himself and providing an explanation for why the Cubs may have fallen short in a critical area of player development to this point. They don’t plan to totally commoditize the farm and just burn through arms like matchsticks, but we should see some young pitchers pushed harder and being given a little more freedom if they’re really taking off.

“It doesn’t mean pushing someone who’s not ready for it,” McLeod qualified. “But I also think there is going to be more of, ‘Let them show that they’re ready to help us,’ so to speak.

When it comes to pushing, there’s a lot of pressure on the scouting and development teams to produce as they head into the eighth season of the current regime. Rather than allow that to force them into rash decisions and hasty promotions, however, McLeod told members of the media he believes the system is better than ever in terms of pitching talent.

“This is probably the first year I can confidently sit here and feel like we have the guys that can help the team this year in the major leagues, if needed.”

More notes from the session:

  • Brailyn Marquez could really make a name for himself this season. McLeod raved about the lanky 6-foot-4 lefty who will still be only 20 years old this season.
  • Adbert Alzolay was in line for a shot at the bigs last season before an injury shut him down. He may be limited early due to missing much of last season, but he’ll be a full go physically from the start of spring training. His elite stuff is perfectly suited to abbreviated major league outings right now.
  • Dakota Mekkes is another player the Cubs are very excited about, one who exemplifies the new concept of letting a pitcher be himself. Though he lacks elite velocity and relies primarily on the deception of his sidearm release point, all Mekkes has ever done is dominate. He may not have been one of those players who got the fast-track treatment in the past.
  • The Cubs are very bullish on their recent position-player draftees, with Nico Hoerner, Brennen Davis, and Cole Roederer getting lots of love.
  • Justin Steele, Duncan Robinson, James Norwood, and Duane Underwood all received high marks and could get the opportunity to join the Cubs at some point this season.
  • McLeod took time to specifically thank Tim Cossins, their former minor league field coordinator, who left the team recently to take a job on Brandon Hyde‘s staff in Baltimore.
  • Minor league pitcher coordinator Brendan Sagara received a lot of credit as well. Though the organization’s pitching philosophy first began to shift prior to him taking that role in January 2018, “Sags” has been instrumental in taking it to a new level.
  • McLeod and Madison weren’t the only ones raving about the pitching coming through the system. Mick Gillispie, who has been the lead broadcaster for the Double-A Tennessee Smokies since 2007, said while moderating the panel that the group of pitchers at that level was head and shoulders above any he’s seen to this point.
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