Cubs turn to weighted balls to unlock ‘best version’ of reliever Rowan Wick

The closer role remains unsettled, but Wick is expected to pitch high-leverage innings this season.

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Rowan Wick throws a weighted ball as part of his warm up activities Tuesdfay at Cubs Spring Training in Mesa, AZ.

Rowan Wick throws a weighted ball as part of his warm up activities Tuesdfay at Cubs Spring Training in Mesa, AZ.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — One week, reliever Rowan Wick sent in video of himself throwing weighted balls on the beach in Australia. In another, a parking lot in Fiji served as the backdrop.

“Everywhere I went, I was trying to find a cement wall to throw my weighted balls against,” he said in a conversation with the Sun-Times. “Normally, if you go to a beach, there’s a cement building that’s got bathrooms in it or something. Or against the -hotel parking garage, that sort of thing.”

Cubs pitching coaches collected video from their players all offseason, but the clips Wick sent in were “wild,” as assistant hitting coach Daniel Moskos put it. Wick maintained his PlyoCare ball velocity program as he traveled to Australia to visit his mom for Christmas and made a stop in Fiji on the way.

“You just saw a guy that was committed all winter,” bullpen coach Chris Young said. “I think it was incredible. His communication was great.”

It was an important offseason for Wick, who finally got a full season under his belt last year after a lingering oblique injury shortened his previous two seasons. Team Canada expressed interest in bringing him in for the World Baseball Classic this spring, but Wick made the tough decision to decline.

“I would love to go over and do that,” he said. “It’d be a lot of fun. And I’m going to miss those guys, for sure. But I think being here is a little bit more important for me right now.”

Wick, whom the Cubs acquired from the Padres after his 2018 debut season, has looked like a closer option for a few seasons now. But injury and inconsistency have kept him from establishing himself in that role.

Now it’s unclear exactly how manager -David Ross will approach the back end of the bullpen. Will he lean on a regular closer or ride the hot hand?

“We’re looking for outs,” Ross said. “We’re looking for guys just to get outs every single inning. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s the fourth and the sixth or the ninth. Somebody will get the majority of those opportunities, and those things play out throughout spring training, through the season.”

The Cubs brought in relievers Brad Boxberger (one year, $2.8 million) and Michael Fulmer, who has been in Cubs camp this week and threw a bullpen Sunday even though the team has yet to make his one-year, $4 million deal official with a roster move. If Ross goes with a more traditional closer, those veterans appear to be leading candidates. But Wick and homegrown lefty Brandon Hughes are poised to cover high-leverage innings either way.

When Wick is in a groove, he has some of the best stuff in the bullpen. But his average four-seam fastball velocity swung between 92.3 mph and 96.3 mph last season. His strong finish correlated with more consistent high velocity.

“The whole group thought one of the versions of Row where he’s been dominant in the big leagues is when he’s been able to hold some of his upper-end velo,” Young said.

So in Wick’s exit meeting at the end of last season, the Cubs laid out an offseason plyo-ball program for him. It included a ramp-up phase and progressed to radar training, with a velocity in mind for each plyo-ball weight.

“I feel like I made some good progress,” Wick said. “And hopefully I gain a few on the fastball.”

In January, when he wasn’t traveling, Wick would throw plyo balls against the wall outside of his facility in Vancouver, British Columbia. Then he’d head inside, play catch and work on his slider with a six-ounce Driveline ball. The Driveline, slightly larger than a normal baseball, is a tool he discovered separately from his team-developed program that helps him get around the ball. Next, he’d switch to a normal baseball and then head to the mound.

“This is probably one of the best offseasons he’s had since he’s been with us,” said Moskos, who took the lead on developing Wick’s weighted-ball program. “He was great about getting his work in. He’s in a great place right now from what we’ve seen early in camp. So I’m definitely encouraged.”

Wick threw his first live batting-practice session of spring training Friday.

“He threw a ton of strikes and looked like a really good version of himself,” Young said. “And I think he’s ready to just keep going from there, so far.”

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