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."

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

With Anthony Rendon officially joining the Angels, the Nationals have a vacancy at third base.

Washington has options to replace Rendon; Josh Donaldson is still available in free agency, and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant could potentially be had via trade.

The Nationals have reportedly inquired with the Cubs about Bryant, and while they “love” the 27-year-old, their focus is on Donaldson, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. The Cubs would likely seek center fielder Victor Robles in a deal, a holdup on Washington's end, Heyman said.

From the Cubs perspective, it would make all the sense in the world to ask for Robles. He’s 22 years old, plays excellent defense (22 DRS in 2019, No. 1 in MLB by center fielders) and is only scratching the surface as a big-leaguer. Robles is projected to be a star, but Bryant already is one. If the Nationals want Bryant badly enough, they’ll have to sacrifice talent in a deal.

On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why Washington would be unwilling to trade Robles, who's under team control through 2024. Bryant will hit free agency after 2021, but if he wins his ongoing grievance case, he'll hit the open market after next season.

Nonetheless, if the Nationals do engage in Bryant trade talks, you can bet the Cubs will at least ask for Robles in return. A trade could be worked out without him, but for a Cubs team searching for better center field production, you've got to wonder who could be more enticing than Robles.

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Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

It didn’t take long for Willson Contreras to introduce himself to Major League Baseball. On the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer, the Cubs catcher cranked a two-run home run to center field — on Sunday Night Baseball, nonetheless.

That moment was a sign of things to come for Contreras, who has since established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. The 27-year-old holds a career .267/.350/.470 line with a 117 wRC+ and 67 home runs in four seasons. He’s started back-to-back All-Star Games, the first Cubs catcher to do so since Gabby Hartnett (1937-38).

Contreras offers so much to the Cubs besides his bat. His cannon of an arm and athleticism behind the plate are integral to the Cubs controlling opposing run games. His pitch framing is a work in progress, and admittedly, he could improve in this area by throwing behind runners less, ensuring he gets strikes called.

However, back-picking is part of Contreras’ value. He may lose some strike calls by not sticking a frame, but there've been plenty of occasions where Contreras' arm has provided the Cubs with a spark. His boundless energy is unmeasurable, but its importance to the Cubs — who feed off of it — cannot be overstated.

There are areas where Contreras can improve, and that's a scary thought. But he's already is one of the best backstops in baseball and has earned the starting catcher spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Welington Castillo, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Geovany Soto