A special thanks to Bobby Basham, Chicago Cubs Director of Player Development for graciously answering questions about Cubs prospects and Player Development operations.
The opportunity to gain any insight into the inner workings of a major league organization has always been a fascination of mine. Ever since I was able to attend the occasional Cubs Convention and get a chance to ask questions of the Player Development staff or ask former Cubs Scouting Director Tim Wilken for a few moments of his time, the ability to peek behind the curtain was one that I cherished. Even when I wasn’t the one directing the questions, I would never miss a podcast or interview with scouting or player development Cubs executives. Writing has opened up additional communication avenues, allowing for more open conversation about prospects and the player development or scouting infrastructure. I hope to bring that to the audience who shares that same drive to lean more about the inner workings of the Cubs organization.
“We’re not really competing against what could have been. We’re competing against the other 30 teams and we’re all in the same situation. And we hope we’ve given our guys the best chance to succeed.”Bobby Basham, Chicago Cubs Director of Player Development
As the weather turns from winter to spring and the familiar sounds of mitts popping and bat cracking begins at spring training facilities, a behind-the-scenes storyline will begin to emerge: how will each club operationalize the major and minor league player development in the organization throughout 2021? I had the chance to discuss these and other questions with Chicago Cubs Director of Player Development, Bobby Basham. Our discussion took place the morning after the 2021 health and safety protocols were officially implemented and many decisions are still being debated across organizations. Bobby was able to provide a bit of insight into how the Cubs viewed the challenges of the 2020 season for players at Site B (the Alternate Site in South Bend) and strategies to ensure a successful 2021 season for the minor league players.
Basham was quick to note that the Cubs don’t pretend to know how 2021 will play out, but are optimistic in the Cubs’ player development ramp-up plan. “I think the one thing that we’ve all had to deal with during this pandemic is uncertainty. And everyone kind of expects that to continue at least in the short term. So the most realistic course of action right now is (and this is this public) that the major leaguers go to spring trainings and minor leaguers follow. We’ve been building them up in a more normal spring training fashion, maybe delayed a couple weeks just anticipating that happening for a while.” Basham said. “With the work of Bres’ [Craig Breslow-Cubs Assistant GM and VP of Pitching] and [pitching coordinators] Casey Jacobson and James Ogden running our pitching infrastructure we were really proactive last year so our guys stimulated real innings through a lot during the pandemic.” Basham said, “So you feel pretty comfortable trying to replicate roughly a full seasons workload. But, obviously, I think everyone is cautious about going from a canceled minor league season to a full minor league season and will be really careful to monitor our guys, build them up slowly, and make sure their workloads are realistic within the scope of this year.”
The Chicago Cubs are believers in performance science and high performance. Fans have heard mention from multiple front office executives and with articles by The Athletic (subscription required). It begged the question of whether the Cubs feel they are uniquely positioned to make big development gains with some other younger/high level prospects that they’ve brought into the system. According to Basham, “It’s hard to say ‘uniquely positioned’. I do feel we’re better positioned than we’ve ever been to be really adaptable to the situation. That’s just our outstanding R&D (research and development) and [player] development team building out tools where we can reach our guys virtually. I feel like we’ve been early adopters of a lot of the technology that now can be used to monitor guys remotely. We really invested in ‘training up’. What we feel is [that we have] the best coaches in the minor leagues, so we can spread out that work amongst a lot of really, really good coaches and it’s not two or three guys trying to keep track of 200. It’s leveraging our entire coaching staff to really have personal relationships with our guys, as much as possible given our circumstances in this time.” Basham said.
“[Concerning high performance] we’re really trying to not be reactive to the baseball calendar but make the calendar work for us and we review this time, whether it’s on the field or off the field as the chance to make gains. And then some guys like having this extended offseason, if you will. It’s going to be a real positive for their career because they’re going to be able to make changes that they otherwise maybe wouldn’t have the time to have that offseason rest and then ramp back up.” Basham said. “They have this extended window where they can gain strength, power, speed, quickness. They can add a pitch, they can work on building strength. They can make some swing adjustments. There are a lot of positives that can come out of this.”
One of the positives that did come out of the pandemic is that multiple players had successes working at the South Bend Alternate Site. Bobby was asked if this type of low-stakes controlled environment might serve as a model for player development in the future.
Basham did push back on the notion that it was low stakes. Point very well made, as each of the players were competing for a significant shot on the major league roster, while also being away from family and friends during a deadly pandemic. However, Bobby noted the Cubs are willing to explore every avenue in player development and are monitoring the effect training in South Bend had on the players that participated. “I don’t know if Site B is a model but, we’re obviously looking at every sort of lever we can pull to make our players better. And there’s probably an order in skill acquisition where you want to practice things in a cage and BP on the field verses live pitching in a controlled environment. [Which] sort of [creates] those different stages along the way. I do think they’re some inherent benefits of the South Bend structure, but that’s just such a tough environment for those guys to develop. I mean you could point to Jason Adam and Chris Morel and Brennen Davis and [Miguel] Amaya and a lot of the minor league [free agents] we signed that were that were coming in took some real steps forward. Just kudos for those guys for having the mental toughness to use that opportunity is a way to really dig in.” Basham said.
Basham further provided insight into whether the Cubs would replicate the South Bend structure, which allowed a few of their top prospects to face major league caliber pitching in a controlled environment as a developmental step. “I think in anything, you need to be challenged to grow. And so that was certainly a challenge for our younger hitters there in South Bend because they were facing MLB quality pitching every night, right? So, I think we’re going to learn a lot coming out of this into this year and next year about some creative things that can make our guys better. And certainly we will examine all those situations. And if all of a sudden, Chris Morel and Brennen Davis and [Miguel] Amaya, if those guys have taken this huge step forward, certainly we’re going to look at why, right? That could be a reason.”
As we enter a whirlwind of a 2021 season throughout baseball, the way players are supplemented with additional resources and positioned within an organizational structure will help to determine many future outlooks. The Cubs are optimistic their plans will lead to significant success throughout the minor leagues and by the big league club.
I hope you enjoyed part 1 of the interview with Bobby Basham. Part 2 is coming soon.
Special thanks to Brad (@ballskwok) for helping to formulate questions.
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