GIF: Even Starlin Castro wants to be just like Kris Bryant


GIF: Even Starlin Castro wants to be just like Kris Bryant

Starlin Castro has been criticized for not keeping his head in games lately.

Not anymore.

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On a ground ball in the sixth inning of Wednesday night's win over the Cardinals, Castro was backing up Kris Bryant and mimicked Bryant every step of the way on the routine groundout.

So cute, you guys.

Here's the full video:

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Will Castro and Bryant become the new Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre

The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs


The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

If anybody thought the Cubs' 2019 season was a roller coaster, it was nothing compared to what Brad Wieck has gone through this year.

Wieck — the 6-foot-9 left-hander reliever — went from a cancer diagnosis to a Padres cast-off and wound up finishing the year carving through the heart of the Cardinals order in the eighth inning of a must-win game in late-September for the Cubs.

Wieck began 2019 with a testicular cancer diagnosis in January and underwent surgery shortly after. That left him playing catch-up all spring training, unable to lift, run or throw off a mound for a month after the surgery. He only ended up facing live hitters twice before the regular season started and was never able to recover with the Padres, putting up a 5.71 ERA in 34.2 MLB innings. 

Then the Cubs came calling.

While the rest of Cubdom was understandably occupied on Trade Deadline Day celebrating the Nick Castellanos move, Theo Epstein's front office made a smaller move with the San Diego Padres. And Wieck wasn't even the central focus of that trade, as more of the emphasis was on the departure of Carl Edwards Jr. — a polarizing figure in the Cubs bullpen the last few seasons, including throughout the 2016 World Series run.

Yet Epstein's front office didn't treat Wieck like a throw-in. From Day 1 with the organization, the Cubs handled the southpaw more like a first-round draft pick.

Right after the trade, Wieck was immediately assigned to Triple-A Iowa, where he made a pair of appearances against the Tacoma Rainiers. From there, he was invited to Chicago to meet with the Cubs front office and throw a bullpen off the Wrigley Field mound.

"So I got here and they had a whole presentation of what my current curveball looked like and what they would like the shape of it to look like and so we just started messing around with grip," Wieck said. "I went to a spike curveball grip and we got in the lab and we started throwing it more and we came up with consistent break of what we thought was gonna be a better break than the curveball that I had.

"Just trial and error, honestly. We just looked at Rapsodo stuff and saw what spin efficiency is doing and spin rate and trying to get my curveball spin to replicate the exact opposite of my fastball. That's what our goal was."

That led to a trip to the "Pitch Lab" in Arizona where Wieck worked with Josh Zeid, the Cubs' pitching analyst, to continue to mess around with the new curveball grip and add a new, consistent weapon to his arsenal. 

If the term "spike curveball" sounds familiar, it should. It's become the unofficial pitch of the Cubs (you know, if organizations defined themselves by just one pitch). Rowan Wick — Wieck's former roommate in the Padres system — broke out as a trusted big-league reliever in large part because of the emergence of his spike curve. Craig Kimbrel throws one and also taught the pitch to Yu Darvish, who added it to the plethora of options already at his disposal. 

Wieck's time in Arizona was about getting comfortable with the new pitch and not worrying about facing hitters or pitching in a game. After a couple weeks in the desert, the Cubs threw him back out on the mound in Iowa, where he made four appearances before getting the call to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September. 

Right off the bat, we got a look at that spike curve and there is no doubt it can play at Wrigley Field, especially when the shadows roll in:

Just like that, a new weapon was born and Wieck developed more confidence in that reshaped curveball.

"I like that they're forcing me to throw it more because I've been a fastball-heavy pitcher my whole life," Wieck said. "I trust my fastball with my life. To have a catcher get back there and make you throw it, that's really good."

The Cubs' confidence in Wieck also grew as the month went on. He emerged alongside his buddy Wick as vital pieces of the late-season bullpen while Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler dealt with injuries. It got to the point where Joe Maddon kept Wieck in to face the Cardinals' big boppers (Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — both right-handed hitters) with a 1-run lead in the eighth inning on that final homestand. We all know how that game ended (Kimbrel served up homers on back-to-back pitches for another gut-wrenching Cubs loss), but Wieck did his job and proved he's far more than just a lefty specialist.

This fall was the first time Wieck had been a part of a playoff push and that outing against the Cardinals was only the 46th MLB appearance of his young career. Moving into 2020, the 28-year-old southpaw looks to be one of only a few arms penciled into the Cubs bullpen. 

The Cubs had their eyes on Wieck for a while before they were able to trade for him and they don't plan on rolling out a big presentation for each acquisition or ask every new arm to start throwing a brand new pitch or completely remake one of their existing pitches. This was a unique situation, but it's one that already paid dividends in a short period of time and could help set up the bullpen for the future. 

It's also another indicator that the "Pitch Lab" can work, as Wieck joins Wick and Kyle Ryan as products of the Cubs' new model they hope to fine-tune and grow. Epstein will hire a director of pitching for the organization this winter and the Cubs are hoping to change the narrative surrounding their shocking lack of pitching development under this front office. 

In Wieck's case, it was a group effort from the Cubs — the front office, research and development department, big-league coaching staff (led by pitching coach Tommy Hottovy), the pitching analytics unit based in Arizona and minor league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara all teamed up to make it happen for the tall lefty in only a month's time.

It's a model the organization will attempt to duplicate moving forward, beginning this winter.

Cubs take another major step in remaking player development and scouting departments


Cubs take another major step in remaking player development and scouting departments

The Cubs are shaking up their player development structure this offseason, announcing a host of internal moves Thursday while also teasing future news on outside hires in the player development and scouting departments.

In his season-ending press conference two weeks ago, Theo Epstein said the Cubs would be creating new roles within the organization — directors of pitching and hitting.

Those hires were announced Thursday, with Craig Breslow being promoted to the director of pitching role after serving as the director of strategic initiatives with the club in 2019 and Justin Stone getting the bump up to director of hitting after spending the last year working as a biokinematic hitting consultant for the Cubs.

"Scouting and player development are a couple of departments that we really started to build up eight years ago and we’ve been making adjustments as we go to try to modernize," Epstein said. "I think this is a good opportunity to take a look at how would we set it up if we were building it from scratch. How would we set it up not to adjust for the modern game, but to be centered around the modern game? 

"We’ve already made some structural and leadership changes and we’ll continue to make more adjustments as well. [The director of hitting and pitching will] ensure that we are building these departments, teaching the game, evaluating players for where the game is now and where the game will be going to make sure we continue to be at the cutting edge."

Breslow, 39, will also work as a special assistant to Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer. He is an Ivy League product who studied molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale and also spent 12 years in the big leagues as a relief pitcher with the Red Sox, Twins, A's, Indians, Diamondbacks, Padres and Marlins. 

Breslow will be tasked with developing and producing impact pitchers from within the farm system, a major weakness of this front office since they arrived to Chicago eight years ago. Part of his job responsibility will be to further grow and enhance the "Pitch Lab," which gained notoriety this season after helping the likes of relievers Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck.

"We’ve been working for many years now with the most cutting edge technology to develop the ability to have great pitch design, pitch tunneling, pitch sequencing, velocity-building programs and certain areas; we’ve been really successful," Epstein said. "Other areas, we haven’t been and we need to continue to do better. I think the goal of someone in the role of director of pitching is to have real clarity on what our pitching philosophy is, what our separators are going to be as an organization, how we make the best use of the most cutting edge technology for the state of modern pitching and — most importantly — where pitching is going over the next several years. 

"And then implement that from top to bottom of the organization, more on the minor-league side, but with a working relationship with the major-league staff so that we have the best possible methods with how we teach pitching, how we maximize pitching and how we evaluate pitching.”

In other words, the Cubs want to be more like the Astros, who have had a remarkable knack at acquiring pitchers and adding spin rate and more swing-and-miss stuff to their repertoire.

Stone has a long history of coaching amateurs in the area, with a stint at Indiana State University (1999-2001) and serving as the GM of the Chicago White Sox Training Academy (2001-11) before starting his own facility in Chicago — Elite Baseball Training. 

Stone will oversee the offensive development of the entire Cubs minor-league system.

The first domino to fall in this "change" was Epstein transferring Jason McLeod from player development and amateur scouting to senior VP of player personnel, a lateral move designed to shake up the Cubs' minor-league infrastructure.

When that shift with McLeod was announced in mid-September, Epstein said it was part of an "audit" of all facets of the organization.

"Trying — at a very granular level — to figure out what we do really well, why we do those things well, how we keep getting better in those areas and what we don't do well, why we haven't been doing well enough in those areas and what different combinations of systems and people we can create to make sure we do better," Epstein said at the time. "...It's hard to take Jason out of scouting and PD, but it'll be good in the long run, too, because those departments were built almost eight years ago now and we've grown a lot, we've adapted a lot and we're doing a lot of cutting-edge things. But to fully modernize and embrace the speed at which the player development landscape is changing, sometimes it takes tweaking the leadership structure a little bit, too, just so you can get some fresh eyes and a fresh perspective, both from inside and outside the organization."

Thursday's announcements are just the tip of the iceberg, with more outside hires to offer that "fresh perspective" coming to augment the player development and scouting departments.

In another pair of internal shifts announced Thursday, Matt Dorey and Jaron Madison are moving to different roles. 

Dorey is now the Cubs' senior director of player development after serving as the organization's director of amateur scouting since 2014. He came up as a scout with the Boston Red Sox before joining the Cubs scouting department in 2012.

Madison was named a special assistant to Epstein and Hoyer in a player evaluation role with an emphasis on scouting. He has worked closely with McLeod for the last eight years, with the last seven seasons coming as the director of player development. Madison's first year with the Cubs came as the director of amateur scouting and he served in the same role with the San Diego Padres.

Under Dorey, Bobby Basham was promoted to director of player development after spending the last year as the assistant director of the department. Basham has been with the Cubs for the last seven years working in scouting and minor league operations.

The Cubs also named Jeremy Farrell the assistant director of baseball development, where the team says he will "maintain the club's organizational philosophy with respect to fundamentals and competitive standards."