Don’t let the Winter Meetings hot stove distract from an equally consequential part of the Cubs’ evolution this offseason: player development.
This year – as the Cubs transition away from their championship core, while facing the financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic – the state of the organization’s pitching pipeline becomes as important as ever.
Homegrown pitching development has been a concern for years. But for any Cubs fan ready to listen to optimism, Cubs vice president of player development Matt Dorey has good news.
“Pitching depth is always a primary objective in the offseason,” Dorey said Monday on the Cubs Talk Podcast. “But we just have more of that depth internally, whereas in years past we had to go out and try to get that on the open market, whether that was through free agency or minor league free agency to provide depth at Triple-A.”
The Cubs overhauled their player development department over the past couple years. And if all goes to plan, the big-league team is poised to begin reaping the rewards this season, financially if nothing else.
Adbert Alzolay is expected to slide into the starting rotation. And if other prospects like Brailyn Márquez can contribute even in inconsistent relief roles, the pitching pipeline will be heading in the right direction in Jed Hoyer’s first year as president of baseball operations.
“As far as sustainability, and frankly, as far as efficiency,” Hoyer said two weeks ago, “I think we have to do a much better job.”
In 2019, the Cubs spent more on pitchers’ salaries ($138 million) than the Rays’ and Orioles’ combined player payrolls. That’s not to mention the trade assets the Cubs gave up to acquire some of those pitchers.
Free agency has already begun to transform the Cubs pitching staff. The team still has Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks headlining its rotation. But the Cubs declined the 2021 option on veteran southpaw Jon Lester. He hits the free agent market along with starters Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood, and relievers Jeremy Jeffress, Andrew Chafin and Ryan Tepera (non-tendered).
The most cost-effective way to fill some of those holes is with homegrown talent.
“With Adbert,” Dorey said, “you saw what he can be at the end of this past season. Developed his slider -- he has a true swing-and-miss pitch now. He's always been a guy that has multiple pitches. It’s just really staying healthy, number one, and two, just refining his repertoire and his command.”
Alzolay made his major league debut in 2019, but over six appearances this past season, for the first time Dorey saw the 25-year-old become comfortable on the major league stage.
Dorey also pointed to left-hander Justin Steele as a player who could earn a bullpen role or serve as major-league rotation depth this coming season.
Dorey expects Márquez, who made his big-league debut in September, will pitch in Double-A. But Dorey added: “He's a guy that I can see impacting the major league roster in ‘21, if he stays on this on this track that he's been on for last couple years.”
The cancelation of the 2020 minor league season did add a hurtle in prospects’ development around the country. But from what Dorey’s seen from 2019, the South Bend alternate site this past season, and the fall instructional league, he has reason to remain positive.
Said Dorey: “The system's actually healthier than it's been… especially at the upper levels from our pitching.”