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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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