Cubs Stage Instructional League In January
In trying to take a holistic view of their players—and wring more out of their pitching infrastructure—the Cubs are staging instructional league in January.
Team officials had kicked around this idea for years before formally inviting a group of about 60 players—mostly recent draft picks and young prospects from Latin America—to the organization’s state-of-the-art complex in Arizona for a comprehensive camp that includes a strength-and-conditioning component, classroom instruction and on-field baseball activities.
"We get into all the specifics of what we do as an organization,” farm director Jaron Madison said.
Instead of giving those players a week or two off after the season ended—and then regrouping in September and October for a traditional instructs—the Cubs restructured their offseason with strength-and-conditioning programs in November and December and a revamped instructional league that runs almost until pitchers and catchers report to spring training.
The division-rival Cardinals, among other organizations, have shifted the start of instructional league from September to January in recent years.
"The thought process was: Give them more rest. Make sure they’re built up the right way,” Madison said. "And then in January, we can start making mechanical changes and adjustments to grips and pitches—things that will carry right into the season, so we can continue and stay with them and make sure things are going in the right direction.
"Rather than teaching them important things and then sending them home and calling and saying, ‘Hey, how’s everything going?’ "
The Cubs are looking for any kind of an edge at a time when their farm system is in a down period and that wave of homegrown pitching has not fully materialized. The Cubs also try to understand their players from all angles, emphasizing makeup in the draft, using technology and recently hiring former big league pitcher Bob Tewksbury as a mental skills coordinator.
"The big component of it was just rest and recovery,” senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod said. "And then a second piece of that was anything that we were going to want to implement with players, we thought, ‘Do they have better recall of it if we give it to them in September and October? And if they aren’t constantly working on it during those two months, does it kind of go away until they come back to spring training?’
"We thought, ‘Hey, let’s try it this way where we can maybe implement a grip change or a fundamental swing change in January with a program that runs right into early February, so it will still be fresh in their minds (and) they can roll right into spring training.’”
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— The Cubs will miss Tim Cossins, who recently joined the Orioles as part of manager Brandon Hyde’s big league coaching staff. As the Cubs' minor league field/catching coordinator for the last six seasons, Cossins worked closely with Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber and pushed the idea of "When It Happens,” urging prospects to do the little things the right way and get ready for the moment when the Cubs would finally be in position to end their century-long World Series drought. A perfect example of that mentality: pinch-runner Albert Almora Jr. tagging up in the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.
"He so bought into how important it was to be a Cub and what that meant,” McLeod said of Cossins. "He’s just such a large presence. It’s going to be really different not having him there this year. I cannot underscore how big a role he played in the culture of what we were able to accomplish around here.”
— In what’s been an unusually busy offseason in terms of staff changes, the Cubs have promoted Chris Valaika to minor league hitting coordinator. Valaika, 33, played parts of four seasons in the big leagues and spent last year as the co-hitting coach at Triple-A Iowa. Valaika replaces Jacob Cruz, the new assistant hitting coach for the Pirates.
Patrick Mooney is a senior writer for The Athletic Chicago