What happens when Phys-Ed meets chemistry? The Cubs are hoping the answer to that is a more powerful, athletic group of prospects who also enjoy pushing and pulling for each other on a deeper level. That’s the purpose behind a new offseason training program for prospects that Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic detail as taking place on a “much bigger scale” than is typical of other organizations.
Though as many as 100 players have been at the Mesa facility at any one point since the season ended, the Cubs are covering full housing, food, and other costs for around 30 of their top prospects from November through February. This isn’t a static setup like a day camp or anything, with some of the younger Latin American prospects arriving later due to their playing schedules, but it does offer a structured setting for targeted workouts and camaraderie.
Among those in camp are top prospect Brennen Davis, 2020 first-round pick Ed Howard, 2021 Minor League Pitcher of the Year DJ Herz, Arizona Fall League sensation Caleb Kilian, and highly-touted righty Kohl Franklin, who is at full-go after missing all of 2021 with shoulder issues. Kilian was brought into the Cubs organization via one of the many trades orchestrated by Jed Hoyer and he’s joined in Mesa by Owen Caissie, Reginald Preciado, Pete Crow-Armstrong, and Kevin Alcantara.
“It’s a great atmosphere to push each other because everybody wants to be the best,” Davis told The Athletic. “The only way you can compete like that is being around guys like this. It’s an awesome environment. We’re going to be in a really good spot heading into spring training. I’m excited to see where our minor-league (system) ranks after something like this. I think there’s going to be a lot of breakout years.”
— Rich Biesterfeld (@biest22) January 23, 2022
That atmosphere is something the Cubs have viewed as integral to the organization as a whole and it’s clearly something they’ve sought to foster at the lowest levels for some time now. While the concept of team chemistry can sometimes be either overblown or overlooked, there’s truth to the notion that strong personal bonds can create the slightest edge that teams need when trying to compete for titles.
Lots of position player talent in #Cubs mini-camp as they head in after BP! PCA @BrennenDavis__ @jgnwogu42 @Bradleelow Cristian Hernandez, Moises Ballesteros, Kevin Alcantara, Kevin Made and Ismael Mena pic.twitter.com/zssUJ6Sb5a
— Rich Biesterfeld (@biest22) January 20, 2022
But just because players like each other doesn’t mean either their personal development or their team’s success will benefit. The most important aspect of this or any offseason program is that prospects make the best possible use of the talent that got them there in the first place. The Cubs have been particularly focused on pitching, with velocity increases receiving priority above pitch design and control up until recently as they become one of the better systems when it comes to improving “stuff.”
We back. pic.twitter.com/b0CRsmtIi3
— Kohl Franklin (@kohlrf) January 22, 2022
There’s also an increased focus on injury prevention, which seems like a given since that’s the white whale of literally every level of athletic competition. But for the Cubs, who shifted philosophies to a more aggressive, Driveline-inspired approach, a jump in pitcher injuries this past season — not to mention the ongoing obstacles presented by the pandemic — have heightened the desire to minimize risk to whatever extent possible.
Skeptics probably see that as antithetical to the rash of videos going around showing young pitchers deadlifting heavy, though lower-body strength and endurance are key to keeping pitchers healthy. Adding strength at the right time and under proper supervision, then, is a hallmark of this offseason program.
On the position-player side, it’s about getting more explosive and athletic to enhance tools that are already there. Many young players get by on raw physical gifts and aren’t ready for the rigors of a long professional season, so this is a way to address those shortcomings. It’s also a matter of creating more margin for error because more dynamic players can find different ways to succeed.
When you lay it out like that, it sort of feels like the Cubs and 29 other teams should have implemented programs like this a long time ago. If all goes well, you can be sure that will be the case soon enough.