“You’ve been in the pipeline filling in time, provided with toys, and scouting for boys.” – Pink Floyd, Welcome to the Machine
We are now at the halfway mark of Cactus League action and the Cubs have been equally impressive and frustrating at times. I love the World Baseball Classic and it has been so exciting to watch, but I do wish all the Cubs were in camp at Mesa. That said, I love the timing of the event and disagree with those who say it should be played in November. The WBC has my pulse racing for the regular season.
If I’m taking anything significant away from the first two weeks of spring baseball, it’s that the Cubs’ pitch lab is certainly doing its thing. We’ve seen those involved turn fringe relievers into absolute studs since 2019, which is why I have full faith in Michael Fulmer this season.
But it is the starters who have impressed me the most in camp. Justin Steele, Jameson Taillon, Hayden Wesneski, and Javier Assad look season-ready right now, and I’m expecting big seasons from each. That there’s a numbers crunch for rotation spots tells you everything you need to know about the team’s development process.
“The technology definitely helps,” Steele said last week. “The numbers back up what you’re trying to do and you’re able to put a number and measurement on different pitches and see why pitches do what they’re trying to do. It’s definitely helped with my four-seam and my slider. It’s helped tremendously with my slider figuring out different hand placements, different grips and I feel like it’s gotten better and better.”
The coaching staff Jed Hoyer, Craig Breslow, and Tommy Hottovy have put in place are impacting arms at all levels of the organization. DJ Herz, Caleb Kilian, and Jordan Wicks have transformed their arsenals. The goal of the lab, particularly with prospects, is extracting the best version of each pitch in their repertoires. For Herz, it’s a new changeup grip and for Kilian, it’s his circle change. Wicks has turned his curveball into a wipeout offering.
Herz is impressed with his results so far.
“[The change] is nasty off of my fastball,” he said.
The guys running the lab have been so successful that the Cubs use it as a recruiting tool. Taillon, who doesn’t like the dog and pony show that comes with free agency, was impressed by the sales pitch Hoyer and Hottovy put together.
“It’s an interesting way to recruit players,” he said. “Some guys might get turned off by that. Like, ‘Hey, I feel like I’m pretty good. I know what I’m doing.’ But they came to me and showed me specific things we could target and get better at that [were] really attractive. And then once I got on board and signed, the pitching coaches were quick to send me throwing programs, drills, videos, and all sorts of things.”
Even Tucker Barnhart is buying in. He was contacting Taillon and other starters as soon as he signed to see what each was working on. Barnhart will be an extension of the lab on the field during regular season games. That type of synergy is something that didn’t exist prior to this season.
When the Cubs were perennial playoff candidates during the second half of the 2010s, failure to develop pitching was the biggest knock against the organization. That’s not the case anymore. The club has a sea of hard-throwing arms at all levels that will be coming to Chicago in waves over the next five seasons. The success of the lab also means that pitchers will come to the Cubs looking to find a higher level. Fulmer should be the next in a line of pitchers who have resurrected their careers working with Hottovy and his staff.
Growing up, I loved the way teams like the Reds, Braves, Royals, A’s, and Twins — even the hated Mets and Cardinals — leveraged their farm systems for big-league success. I believe the Cubs are on the cusp of that type of consistent production from their pitching prospects. Combining that with a major market payroll and the ability to add impact players when needed means Hoyer may accomplish what Theo Epstein tried and failed to do.
We are seeing a working version of Epstein’s vision for this organization back in 2011. As exciting as it is to watch it all unfold, it’s still in its infancy. The Dodgers have been to the playoffs for 10 straight seasons. The Cubs have created a roadmap for similar success, hopefully as soon as this season.
Cubs News & Notes
- The new franchise valuations are out, and the Cubs are worth $4.69 billion, up 6% from last year.
- Barnhart has impressed Cubs pitchers with his knowledge and work ethic.
- Cade Horton looks like he’s ready to join Chicago’s big league rotation.
- At the big league level, Steele, Wesneski, and Keegan Thompson seem poised to take a big developmental leap in 2023.
- Wesneski knows “that he belongs” in the Cubs rotation.
- Assad has made a strong case to be a starter, too. The competition between Assad and Wesneski has been fierce and the two have really turned some heads in camp.
- The Brewers beat the Cubs 5-3 yesterday as Adrian Sampson, who is also battling for a rotation spot, had another tough outing.
- At this point, it appears the fifth spot is Wesneski’s to lose.
- Brandon Hughes is the team’s lone lefty reliever, but he’s ready to take his game to the next level this year.
- Defense has become the foundation for Chicago’s championship window. People tend to forget that the Cubs played elite defense in 2016, too.
- Marcus Stroman, Roenis Elías, and Owen Caissie are also turning heads in the World Baseball Classic.
Odds & Sods
Joe Pepitone with those burns, baby. Simply majestic. You’ve got to love the jersey minus the undershirt, too.
RIP Joe Pepitone
— CubWin (@CubWin) March 13, 2023
Climbing the Ladder
I was sad to hear that Pepitone passed away yesterday. My parents separated in 1973 after my little brother was born, and for about six months, my dad shared an apartment in Tinley Park with Pepitone and Tony Muser. Joey was a big Dog ‘N Suds guy, and there used to be one near 167th & Oak Park Avenue. I loved calling them Uncle Joey and Uncle Tony, and the trio’s collection of colognes rivaled Brian Fantana’s (Hai Karate and Canoe were the popular choices). If you’ve ever seen Anchorman, however, Champ Kind was a dead ringer for the former Cubs’ first baseman.
Pepitone was a celebrated baseball bachelor and serial dater, allegedly smoked weed with Willie Mays, Jim Bouton, Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle, dressed very flamboyantly, and helped my dad ease into a George McGovern-Edwin Muskie-Hubert Humphrey type of liberalism. I mean, we used to have Barry Goldwater and Charles H. Percy signs in our garage, so I can only assume which way my father leaned until then. On Fridays, Pepitone, Muser, and my dad would go to the area near State & Divison that we now refer to as the Viagra Triangle. Jilly’s was their nightclub of choice, because of course it was.
Pepitone posed nude for a woman’s magazine in 1975, though my father was on his own by that point. Joe Pep wore a rug for his pictorial, something he never tried to hide from the public. He later introduced Ron Santo to the finer toupees available, though the flaming hairpiece was all Santo.
“This one,” Pepitone once told The New York Times, holding one wig, “is my gamer. It’s got gray in it. The longer one is my going-outer.”
How About That!
Trevor Bauer will be continuing his baseball career overseas. According to Yuki Yamada of Sankei Sports, Bauer is signing a one-year contract with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars in Japan. The deal is worth $4 million, not including incentives.
MLB generated the most positive buzz of any professional sport in 2022. That doesn’t include the Bauer news, one would presume.
Those new rules have really improved the pace of play. The league is also seeing higher batting averages and an increase in stolen bases.
You’ve got to love WBC success stories. The Tigers signed pitcher Duque Hebbert of Team Nicaragua, a 21-year-old righty who lit up social media on Monday. Hebbert struck out MLB stars Juan Soto, Julio Rodríguez, and Rafael Devers of the Dominican Republic team in a recent outing, then signed his deal an hour later.
On the other hand, Mitch Bratt didn’t fare as well against US stars such as Mookie Betts and Mike Trout. The 19-year-old Canadian hurler took a 12-1 loss in a game that was declared over in the middle of the 7th due to the WBC’s mercy rule.
The league has decided to stream some baseball games for free amid the looming Bally’s/Diamond Sports bankruptcy.
Apropos of Nothing
I made corned beef last night because it’s a March tradition, but I changed things up this year, and the result was culinary bliss. I’ve always used Guinness for my brine but this year I substituted an Oatmeal Stout. I also spread Boar’s Head horseradish sauce instead of mustard on the top fat of my flat cut before cooking. The sauce and stout combination gave the brisket a caramel glaze that was phenomenal. Comment below if you’d like the recipe.
Tuesday Morning Six-Pack
- The annual frenzy known as NFL free agency commenced Monday, and the Bears were the league’s most active team. Chicago signed stud linebacker Tremaine Edmunds in what can best be described as a shocker.
- Linebacker T.J. Edwards also signed with the Bears. He was a collegiate teammate of emerging star Jack Sanborn, and Monsters of the Midway suddenly have a linebacking corps that rivals Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, and the underrated Hunter Hillenmeyer. The Bears also signed guard Nate Davis and DE DeMarcus Walker.
- Aubrey Huff is having a tough time adjusting to life after baseball and is little more than an attention-seeking whore. Now he’s got a red hot poker up his ass for Gisele Bündchen, ex-wife of retired NFL star Tom Brady.
- Today is National Pi Day. Celebrate accordingly.
- Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band have been canceling shows due to an illness within the band. So far, their overseas dates and the shows at Wrigley Field have not been affected.
- US banks are collapsing which is why we have the FDIC. The agency says our money is safe. Do we believe them? I do. I don’t trust our lawmakers, though.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) March 13, 2023
They Said It
- “[The Cubs] were one of the first teams to contact me. Before any dollar figures were exchanged or anything like that, they were saying, ‘Look, this is what we think you can work on. Whether you sign here or not, we think you can benefit by throwing this pitch or something with this shape. Obviously, our interest level is high. We’d love to have you. But even if things don’t work out, this is how we think you can get better.'” – Fulmer
- “When we’ve been at our best, certainly we’ve been very good defensively. So up the middle, that’s certainly a priority. With any offseason, you are dealing with what’s available, you certainly may have a certain desire to build a team a certain way. But if that’s not available, you’re going to pivot. So being nimble is important. But that said, being strong defensively, taking care of the ball, and playing clean baseball, that’s winning baseball.” – Hoyer
- “We’re just looking for outs. The manager’s looking for outs. I don’t care what side of their body [the pitchers] hold the ball on. That doesn’t matter to me. I just want them to get outs.” – David Ross
Tuesday Walk-Up Song
Rest in Peace, Uncle Joey