Cubs

19 for '19: Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?

19 for '19: Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: Will Willson Contreras fulfill his destiny as the best catcher on the planet?

A dream scenario for Willson Contreras and the Cubs: He puts it all together, stays healthy, garners NL MVP votes and winds up taking over as unquestionably the best catcher in baseball.

A worst-case sceanrio for Contreras and the Cubs: He struggles again while catching a ton of innings and all the talk of his "potential" is retired forever.

Both scenarios are entirely possible for Contreras in 2019. But if you're a betting person, bet on the latter at your own risk...because he's making a strong push for his 2019 to go the way of the former.

The Cubs' enigmatic and energetic young catcher is entering his prime and he has a brand new lease on his career after last season's struggles.

He is his own harshest critic, telling NBC Sports Chicago's Kelly Crull that he slacked off on his routine and fitness last year and believes he didn't deserve to have a good season.

"Everything is easy when you're going well, when you're not thinking too much and hitting homers and doubles with guys in scoring position," he said. "I was too comfortable last year, to be honest. It kills me — I was like way too comfortable. I talked to my family and my wife about this.

"I didn't do my best on my routine because the season before, I hit 21 homers and I told myself, 'OK, if you hit 21 homers one year, you can do it again next year.' But it doesn't work like that.

"This game taught me that you have to keep working hard like you did the last year and don't get too comfortable because you're gonna fail and fail and fail. We learn and we move on."

Contreras' power issues were magnified in the second half of last year (only 11 extra-base hits and 3 homers in 56 games), but he actually wasn't tearing the cover off the ball like he's capable of before the All-Star Break, either.

Now that he's learned a lesson the hard way and insists he's no longer complacent, what is Contreras capable of offensively?

Well, even with the power issues in the first half of last year, Contreras was still the NL starter in the All-Star Game...where he homered off Chris Sale in his first at-bat. Going into that game, the Cubs backstop had a career .278/.359/.480 slash line, which is good for an .839 OPS.

To put that in perspective, Buster Posey has a career OPS of .840 and Gary Sanchez is at .847 through his four years in The Show. During his career year in 2018, J.T. Realmuto posted an .825 OPS.

Of course, offense isn't the only area a catcher is judged on. 

Contreras rates poorly in several defensive metrics — namely pitch framing. He has an absolute cannon for an arm which certainly helps keep the run game in check, but he undoubtedly has room to grow as a receiver and game-caller.

Cubs pitchers — especially Jon Lester — have done nothing but rave about his abilities as a battery mate and he's been working with catching coordinator Mike Borzello to improve in every area. 

It's also worth pointing out that Contreras is a converted catcher and only registered 226 starts at the position in the minor leagues. Plus, every inning he's caught in the major leagues has been for a contending team where every pitch and every inning mattered.

Contreras certainly has the potential to take his crown as the unquestioned best catcher on the planet. But will he put up the production to match?

Only time will tell...

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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

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USA TODAY

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."

Joe Girardi steps down as manager for Olympic qualifying team to pursue MLB openings

Joe Girardi steps down as manager for Olympic qualifying team to pursue MLB openings

Joe Girardi’s name has come up for just about every managerial opening in Major League Baseball and it sounds like he is all in on pursuing that opportunity.

Girardi was set to manage USA Baseball’s Olympic qualifying team. He was named the manager of Team USA in August. His first tournament was going to be the upcoming Premier12 tournament, which is the first chance to qualify for the Olympics. Camp was set to begin on Oct. 21 and the U.S.’s first game is Nov. 2.

Instead, Girardi has stepped down. USA Baseball broke the news with a press release that announced Scott Brosius, a former teammate of Girardi’s on the Yankees, will take over.

The reason is the interesting part. He stepped down “as he pursues open managerial opportunities in Major League Baseball.”

At the very least, it sounds like Girardi is interested in at least one of the openings in MLB. He interviewed with the Cubs last week so this won't quell any speculation that he would come back to the North Side as a manager.

David Ross may still be the odds on favorite to fill the Cubs’ vacancy, but Girardi’s apparent interest in rejoining the ranks of MLB managers is certainly noteworthy. One would think if Girardi wants to get back into managing in MLB, at this indicates, he will get a job. Now the question is where he will land.

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