After the Cubs hired Daniel Moskos away from the Yankees to be an assistant pitching coach, Craig Breslow asked him for players to target in future trade talks. Moskos, who worked as a minor-league instructor for the Yankees in 2020 and 2021, recommended two pitching prospects as realistic 1A/1B options: Ken Waldichuk and Hayden Wesneski.
Moskos, 37, has the perspective of a 2007 first-round pick who briefly pitched in the majors as a left-handed reliever before getting in front of some of the pitching trends running through the game. In scouting terms, Moskos believed that Waldichuk had a higher ceiling while Wesneski had a higher floor.
On the day before last year’s trade deadline, the Yankees packaged Waldichuk in a deal with the A’s for Frankie Montas and Lou Trivino, and exchanged Wesneski for sidearm reliever Scott Effross. The Yankees revamped their pitching development programs just a little before the Cubs took that step after the 2019 season, a process spearheaded by Breslow, the ex-major-league pitcher and a Yale graduate who’s now the organization’s assistant general manager/senior vice president of pitching.
Breslow and many within the Cubs’ front office are fans of what the Yankees do, which is part of the reason why Moskos was pursued. So they trusted they’d be getting a good pitcher in Wesneski, believing he wouldn’t need to make drastic changes. But with Moskos’ input, they trusted in the person they were getting, as well.
“The pitch data and performance is readily available to everyone,” Breslow said, “so it’s getting more difficult to glean a ton of insights from that, though I do think we have a unique way of looking at those things. But moreover, what stood out was the quality of the worker, the diligence, the aptitude, the curiosity. If you were to try and put together the personality of a young pitcher that is on a path towards success, those are attributes that you would look over, and those were the attributes that Moskos endorsed quite heavily.”
“Shoot, he might burst through the ceiling I had initially put on him,” Moskos said.
In joining the Cubs, Wesneski found another organization with a tech-savvy approach, a focus on process rather than results, and a familiarity with some of his, uh, quirks.
Wesneski, 25, is so diligent in his work and obsessed with improvement that he can often come across as hypercritical of himself. After a recent strong start in Oakland, Wesneski picked apart what he did wrong. Upon hearing that, veteran catcher Yan Gomes suggested that at the highest level it’s important to “give yourself some grace” and “take the positive of every outing.” It’s an aspect Wesneski is still learning to balance.
“He’ll just throw an amazing bullpen and he’ll be like, ‘Ah, it sucked,’” Moskos said. “And it’s like, ‘Are you kidding me? What is the standard you’re holding yourself to?’ But it’s good because you always feel like there’s something to work on. You definitely want the guys who think they’re not as good as they are rather than the ones who think they’re better than they are.”
To speed up the transition, it helped that the Cubs were already fluent in “WEZNASTY,” which is the trademark application that he recently filed for a potential clothing line. In addition to Moskos, the Cubs hired Kevin Poppe — who has worked with Wesneski for years at Dynamic Sports Training in Texas — as a strength and conditioning pitching specialist to act as a liaison between those groups on the major- and minor-league sides. Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy is also very personable and adaptable to different personalities.
Chicago Cubs pitcher Hayden Wesneski has filed a trademark application for:
The filing, made on April 20th, indicates an intent to launch a "WEZNASTY"-brand of clothing.#NextStartsHere #Chicago #Cubs pic.twitter.com/0oE8dV0jVv
— Josh Gerben (@JoshGerben) May 2, 2023
“Tommy’s really easy to talk to,” Wesneski said. “You wonder why some guys go to places and they don’t work out. You don’t think about it like, ‘Oh, him and the pitching coach got into it. Oh, him and the assistant were butting heads, he never really got help.’ I know how to talk to Mos. And Mos knows how to get me on the right track. He gets me where I need to be. Sometimes, you need to get on my ass. And sometimes it’s like, ‘Hey, you’re being a little hard on yourself right now. Easy.’”
Moskos and Wesneski built up trust during their time together in the Yankees organization. Wesneski believed he had more velocity to tap into. With a plan that he and Moskos came up with that included PlyoCare, weighted balls and some delivery tweaks, he did exactly that. The trust between the two has only grown since then.
Hottovy is so easy to talk to that Wesneski laughed when a reporter relayed this story about his ability to shift gears.
“Last year, he had a game where I jumped on the headset with Marquee during the game and they were asking me about him,” Hottovy recalled. “I was just saying he’s a really awesome personality and a hard worker. Definitely ‘quirky’ is the way I described him. He didn’t say a word (about the in-game interview). The next start, in the fourth inning, he had like a one-hitter going, and he’s pacing. He goes, ‘Hey, I forgot to ask you something.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘The last time I pitched, my girlfriend said you called me quirky.’
“It was the middle of the game and he hadn’t said anything about it before. I was like, ‘Yeah, I did.’ He’s like, ‘What did you mean by that?’ I meant it in an endearing way. Your personality is very bubbly. He’s like, ‘OK’ and then just walked off and then went out and punched out the side in the fifth. That just about sums up him.”
Wesneski said, “I don’t know if I punched out the side, but I do remember that.”
If Wesneski didn’t enter spring training as the clear favorite to become the No. 5 starter, he still made it a no-brainer decision. That Cactus League performance combined with his showing as a September call-up highlighted everything the Cubs thought they were getting from the Yankees. As president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said on Opening Day: “He seems unbelievably comfortable in a good way. He’s talking to all the veteran pitchers. Everything about the way he carries himself is that he belongs in the rotation, he belongs in the big leagues. That’s all we’ve seen. He’s been fantastic. Obviously, we traded a really good pitcher to get him, but we’re certainly glad we have him. There’s nothing I’ve seen in him that doesn’t believe he can stick in the rotation for a long time.”
“Some of the screaming when he doesn’t execute reminds me of an old teammate,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “Jake Peavy did it pretty loudly. He’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever been around. He used that to his advantage. That’s something that made him tick, so I don’t want anybody to calm down or change. I think Hayden uses all of his energy and frustrations and attention to detail in the right way.”
Wesneski, who is scheduled to face the Twins on Saturday afternoon at Target Field, has a 3.93 ERA through seven starts this season. It’s not clear how much he would gain from more time at Triple-A Iowa. He’s just now beginning to really figure out how to follow a better routine and make the necessary in-game adjustments. His swing-and-miss is going to have to return to last year’s levels as well (he sports a 15.9 percent strikeout rate, nine points down from last year), which is all part of the process.
It’s also unclear what the Cubs are going to do once Kyle Hendricks is ready to rejoin the rotation. Until further notice, Wesneski remains a starting pitcher the Cubs hope to build around, now and in the future.
“The Cubs and the Yankees are very similar when it comes to the way they attack stuff,” Wesneski said. “I talked to buddies that got traded to other places and (sometimes they’re saying), ‘We don’t have any help.’ Because you’re going to get out of whack at some point during the year. And here, it’s like if you get out of whack, they fix you in a day. They want to win. They want to help you out. They want to make sure that you’re consistent. It’s what I’m used to. And I appreciate it because baseball can get really, really, really a lot harder if you don’t have any help.”
(Photo: Geoff Burke / USA Today)