Monthly Archives: December 2020

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Sahadev Sharma at The Athletic did a lengthy and informative and delightful and nerdy Q&A with recently-promoted Cubs Assistant GM/VP of Pitching Craig Breslow. It is the kind of awesome deep dive that makes my day.

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For all the Cubs prospect hipsters out there, all eyes are going to be on Craig Breslow and the Cubs revamped pitching development apparatus. “I think we’ve built an infrastructure around this group to extract as much talent and value as we possibly can.”

— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) December 22, 2020

There’s so much in there that you can sink your teeth into, including Breslow’s development, where the Cubs think they can find edges, how you marry the process and the players, and how physical high performance programs might be the next wave.

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One part that really stood out to me was confidence you could sense from Breslow that what the Cubs were able to do with Adbert Alzolay, who developed and deployed an effective new slider at the dang big league level within the span of just a few weeks, isn’t necessarily a fluky one-off. To be sure, Alzolay is a stud who worked so hard and was so open to the process that he deserves all the credit in the world. You can’t presume every pitcher will be able to approach things like Alzolay did. But, like I said, you get the sense that Breslow and the Cubs believe they have a real angle in pitcher development here.

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Starting pitcher Adbert Alzolay #73 of the Chicago Cubs delivers the ball against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on September 27, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The Cubs haven’t been able to cross much off their offseason checklist so far. And with the winter meetings now over, the bulk of their work still lies ahead.

Things haven’t moved as quickly as anyone would like, and the Cubs still have moves they must make before heading to spring training in two months.

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Here are three key areas the Cubs still need to improve this offseason:

Starting pitching

Right-handers Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks showed last season that they can be a formidable 1-2 punch and lead any rotation. In fact, with two frontline starters at the top, the rotation might be the Cubs’ biggest strength going into 2021. Both pitchers are under club control for the next three seasons and should give the Cubs some hope that a few moves can put them back in a position to contend.

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But there are questions about the rotation after Darvish and Hendricks. Right-handers Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay seem to be in line to be the Cubs’ No. 3 and No. 4 starters, and while both showed flashes of what they might be able to do with more opportunities, can they perform that way over a full season?

Among Breslow’s comments on that topic:

What I can say is that type of process is something that we have implemented and are scaling such that if it turns out that other pitchers in the organization have the latent ability to make that adjustment as quickly as Adbert did, I believe that that will manifest itself on a much broader scale ….

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I’m very hopeful and optimistic that we should expect more. I think we have a really talented group of minor-league pitchers and I think we’ve built an infrastructure around this group to extract as much talent and value as we possibly can by being more aggressive in initiatives, whether they are pitch design initiatives, velocity programming, pitch usage and attack plans. We’ve tried to do this through a process that should be scalable and transferable.

So if we look at Alzolay as proof of concept — and it’s difficult because he’s just one individual, but I think we can talk to the flashes of success that even Tyson Miller showed with a couple of new pitches and the excitement around Brailyn [Marquez]’s sinker, Justin Steele, who didn’t get into a game at the big-league level, but showed really well at the alternate site with a new pitch (slider) — I think we can start to point to more than just a single individual and we can start to talk about actually a development approach and philosophy. And to me that’s the difference between the one-off success stories and propelling an entire player development apparatus to the forefront of the industry.

Hey, bonus eyeball emojis there for the specific name drops of Miller, Marquez, and Steele.

There’s nothing new about organizations trying to help pitchers add and/or refine pitches. But what you only very rarely see is a guy adding a new pitch and then using it effectively against hitters in the span of a single season, let alone a single month. Usually, a guy has always tinkered with a pitch, and maybe had a breakthrough over the course of an offseason, and then maybe he starts to incorporated it more and more over the course of a season. And that’s if things go very well for a pitch’s development. So if the Cubs actually have some way to know when and how to get a guy throwing a new pitch – at a game-ready level – within a single season, then, yeah, that’d be a monumental step in pitcher development.

That’s not to mention refining and improving existing pitches, which all kinda falls under a similar umbrella, and which we kinda got some hints at this past season for a number of pitchers (not just prospects).

Because the Cubs only started the overhaul of their player development infrastructure in the pre-2019 offseason, and didn’t really complete the hiring process on that front until last offseason, this was actually the first year where the battle station was fully operational, so to speak. Except thanks to the pandemic, there was no minor league season, so even if all the personnel and behind-the-scenes processes were in place this year, there wasn’t actually an opportunity to work through these things in games. So, like you keep hearing from me, next year is potentially going to be eye-popping in the minor leagues for the Cubs. Or at least we hope it will be, and then we hope it keeps improving from there.

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The Chicago Cubs hope Jonathan Holder can provide the same success that Ryan Tepera and Jason Adam did in 2020 at a thrifty price.

Holder, 27, who pitched parts of the last five seasons for the New York Yankees, agreed to a one-year, non-guaranteed contact with the Cubs on Thursday. He is 10-6 with a 4.38 ERA in 157 major-league games, averaging 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

Holder was 3-0 with a 4.98 ERA in 18 games for the Yankees last season. His ERA was inflated by eight earned runs over his final three games. Holder posted a 3.14 ERA in a career-high 60 games in 2018.

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Holder will receive $750,000 if he makes the team, according to a source.

Earlier this month, the Cubs claimed reliever Robert Stock off waivers from the Boston Red Sox.

The Cubs’ 40-man roster stands at 36.

It’s weird to be digging into a set of projections for the Chicago Cubs 2021 season before they’ve really done anything this offseason, but, hey, at some point publications have to pull the trigger. Also, it’s not actually true that the Cubs haven’t done anything yet this offseason – they’ve done a lot of subtracting! Also, reliever additions!

That is to say, I do expect the final Cubs roster to look different come Opening Day (whenever that is), but for now, you can still get a lot of insight into how the ZiPS projection system at FanGraphs is eyeing the current composition of the roster, and how it sees 2021 playing out for certain players.

It ain’t great!

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Head over to FanGraphs to see the particulars on each player, because I’m planning to just discuss the groups more generally.

A blanket caveat, I guess, is that because the NL Central figures to suuuuuuck in 2021, the Cubs don’t have to look like a behemoth to be competitive. Indeed, it kinda seems like they’re banking on that. And in the aggregate, FanGraphs sees the Cubs as more or less competitive. Is that good enough to keep the band together? Good enough to make additions? Or should the Cubs sell further from here?

Starting Rotation
An extreme version of what we say narratively, what with two very good starting pitchers at the front, and then a whole bunch of questions thereafter. Even Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills project horribly (more than 15% worse than league average), Alzolay presumably because of the limited track record of success, and Mills presumably because of the rough peripherals. You can have reasons to be more optimistic than the system on each, but it’s a reminder that these guys are not sure things. And they’re the third and fourth starters!

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The system is not a fan of any of the Cubs’ upper-level minor league starters either, and for you to be optimistic on that front, you’d have to believe the Cubs did more than the average team in developing those guys over the lost minor league season.

Any way you slice it, you come to the same conclusion we’d already been at for a while: if the Cubs want to be competitive in 2021, they’re going to need to add a quality starting pitcher or two. Especially because we already know that the innings are going to have to be spread around to more guys this year. At least the starting pitching market is extremely deep this offseason in the buy-low, reclamation pool where the Cubs will be swimming.

Craig Kimbrel projects decently well, and that’s about it. But what did you expect for a positional group where the Cubs have made it an affirmative strategy not to load up on guys whose on-paper projections would necessarily look great? By way of example, Jason Adam projects as 10% worse than league average, which seems pretty reasonable when you look at his statistical body of work. But we know that he’s pretty dramatically changed his pitch mix with the Cubs, and thus have reason to suspect that the version of Adam we see in 2021 could bear very little resemblance to the guy he was before 2020, and on which most of the projections are based.

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That said, you would nevertheless like to see a lot more rosy projections for your young, upper-level arms who figure to be rotating in and out of the bullpen. A lot of those guys, plus additions like Jonathan Holder and Robert Stock, project as just around average.

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Whatever the forecasts here, though, I’m less worried about the bullpen over the course of a full season than I would’ve been four years ago if you’d shown me the group. The Cubs’ pitching system has just been very, very good at this recently.

ZiPS is deeply unimpressed by the improvements in Willson Contreras behind the plate in 2020, which is understandable because it was a small sample … but also, we know that framing is one of those skills that can develop rapidly, and then you tend to have it until/unless there is a physical issue. I’m comfortable projecting Contreras to be much better defensively than ZiPS says (and also, frankly, much better than merely 4% better than league average offensively).

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Victor Caratini is right there where you’d expect him, below average offensively overall (but solid for a catcher), and about average defensively. There’s probably upside in the bat from here, but even at what he is right now, that’s a valuable player to have.

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Today the Chicago Cubs added three prospects to their 40-man roster in advance of the deadline to do so for Rule 5 Draft purposes: righties Cory Abbott and Keegan Thompson, and infielder Christopher Morel.

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Not surprisingly or coincidentally, these three are probably the best Cubs prospects who were eligible for Rule 5 selection this year, thus they get protected. As we’ve discussed this week, that still doesn’t make it quite a lock to add a guy to the 40-man roster (not all good prospects would get drafted in the Rule 5, because they can’t necessarily stick on a big league roster the next year), but these guys were close enough and/or talented enough that the Cubs didn’t want to mess around.

Much more from Bryan on Morel here and Abbott here, with a bit on Thompson, too. Morel is one of the Cubs’ highest upside prospects, and was at the alternate site this past year (but has not played games above Low-A). He’ll probably play at High-A next season – third base, most likely – and we’ll see how the weird 2020 season treated his development.

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Cory Abbott may be an internal option to provide depth for the Cubs in 2021.
Over the past year, I have spoken at varying lengths about the Chicago Cubs‘ future options within the rotation and how it projects moving forward into the coming seasons. One of those prospects who has been discussed at different points is right-handed pitcher Cory Abbott.

Abbott ranked as Baseball America‘s 149th prospect in the 2017 MLB Draft. His first professional action came at Class-A Short Season, where he started five games and finished with a 3.86 ERA over 14 innings. Each start encapsulated a few innings where Abbott could get his feet wet at a higher level.

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From 2018 to the present, the 25-year-old has serenely climbed the rankings ladder within the organization. In 2018, Abbott ranked as the number 16 overall prospect in Chicago’s pipeline. After a strong showing the season before, he cracked the top ten in 2019, moving between Class-A South Bend and Class-A Advanced Myrtle Beach. He posted a collective 2.50 ERA in 115 innings.

Last season Abbott made the jump to Double-A Tennessee. His final five starts at Myrtle Beach encapsulated a stretch of ball where he posted a 0.67 ERA over 27 innings where Abbott posted a 27.4 percent strikeout percentage and a 2.80 FIP.

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The continued growth Abbott displayed shone through with the Smokies. He made a career-high 26 starts, finishing with ten quality starts and a 3.01 ERA. His strikeout rate improved, as did his walk rate. Opponents hit barely over .200 off Abbott, and a significant improvement in his WHIP showcased his ability to limit those opposing hitters.

Similar to how Abbott finished his year in 2018 with the Pelicans, he strung together another stretch to end his 2019 campaign in which he posted a staunch 1.17 ERA over his final nine starts. Most impressive was the notable increase once again in his strikeouts as his rate soared to 34.5 percent. In a fun and strangely consistent finish, Abbott also posted a 2.80 FIP in those final starts.

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Patrick Mooney, a senior writer at The Athletic and Cubs correspondent at Baseball America, recently wrote a piece on Abbott. Coming off a shoulder injury that punctuated his pre-spring training throwing program, the right-hander touched on working his way back and staying in the purview as a future rotation option.

NEXT: Five Cubs prospects you’ll see in Chicago in 2021
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Regarding 2021 and the expected roster shakeup inevitably heading the Cubs’ way, Abbott can very much be in consideration for a back-end role in the rotation. In the past, he has been scouted as a future number four starter, and if the Cubs wish to continue to grow the crop of the farm, Abbott represents the perfect option and should be on fans’ radar next year.

Abbott and Thompson are just-about-big-league-ready starting pitchers, with Abbott the Cubs’ 2019 minor league pitcher of the year, and Thompson potentially just as effective, though slowed by injuries. Each could easily factor into the depth starting mix for the Cubs in 2021, though each figures to start the year in the Iowa Cubs rotation.

The Cubs 40-man roster now stands at 37.