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Cubs need pitching infrastructure to get most out of rotation

The Cubs have built their pitching infrastructure over the last three years to maximize their talent. With some projects in this year’s rotation, their system will be put to the test.

The Cubs’ fate in 2021 could be riding on Kyle Hendricks and the rest of the starting rotation.
The Cubs’ fate in 2021 could be riding on Kyle Hendricks and the rest of the starting rotation.
John Antonoff/For the Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — The story of the 2021 Cubs will revolve around their starting pitching, and if they plan on competing in the National League Central, the rotation will have to step up.

Aside from Kyle Hendricks, who has taken the reins as the team’s No. 1 starter, the Cubs have completely overhauled their starting staff.

Right-handers Jake Arrieta, Zach Davies and Trevor Williams are expected to play a big role in the team’s rotation plans. Incumbents Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay also will get meaningful innings in the rotation, but possibly out of the bullpen, as well.

While the recent additions increased the Cubs’ experience in the rotation, the group is not without flaws. Arrieta and Williams have struggled in recent years, and while Mills and Alzolay have shown flashes, neither are finished products. Trying to fix those flaws will put a lot of emphasis on the team’s vaunted pitching infrastructure.

“What puts us in a unique position to kind of maximize some of those guys is the infrastructure that we build ... the resources that we have at our disposal,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said.

The Cubs’ financial fluctuations this offseason have been documented. Because of where the club was able to spend in the starting-pitching market, its acquisitions require a little more maintenance. Pitchers who would be considered plug-and-play weren’t in the team’s price range.

Finding value in the free-agent market doesn’t mean anything if the team can’t capitalize on it. The Cubs’ pitching infrastructure, which includes the research and development staff, has had success stories recently, including Alzolay, Mills, Rowan Wick, Jason Adam and the rebirth of closer Craig Kimbrel.

“I’ve learned a lot from the system that we have here — a lot of the pitching infrastructure,” Hendricks said. “I’ve learned a lot of what I do from these guys.”

But how do you get a pitcher to make these significant adjustments on the fly? Trust becomes the key. Once that trust is obtained, the rest of the process becomes easier for the player and the staff.

“I think what separates us is the communication between all the departments,” Hottovy said. “How we try to work together to not only identify players that we feel like we can make a minor adjustment to and help them become a better version of themselves, but then selling it to the player that we’re the organization that’s going to best help them achieve that. And then using all the resources and everything available to accomplish it. It takes all that. It takes buying in from the player. It takes buying in from the organization and the coaches for that all to come together.

“So it’s not as easy as identifying a player, here’s the change, go do it, you become better. It’s how can we do this together as a group? How do we get a player to have ownership in that? The more they own it and want to make the changes, the better chances that those things stick. Yes, we want to win. We want to win the division and win the World Series. But at the essence, the core of that is, can we get the best version of each one of our guys? If you can do that, we’re in really good shape.”