“I don’t think there is a more important function or event in baseball operations than the draft.”
This quote is from the Cubs’ new scouting director, Dan Kantrovitz, who said it to FanGraphs David Laurila in 2018. He was then the assistant GM for the Oakland Athletics, a position he worked for five years after serving for three years as the St. Louis Cardinals’ scouting director. Kantrovitz’ return to that position signals, if nothing else, a steadfast belief in the quote above. This is a man that loves the draft.
It’s impossible for me to separate talking about the Cubs’ 2020 Draft – which we have previewed in detail the past few months – without talking about the change in leadership. Under a team of Jason McLeod and Matt Dorey, the Cubs haven’t had the most diverse drafting portfolio over the years. This has been an organization that likes college hitters, specifically ones that performed well with wood bats in the Cape Cod League, and college pitchers with good curveballs. They liked to play the bonus pool game, usually arranging the draft around an above-slot signing (or signings) in the middle rounds.
It’s been a team that has had pretty solid success with their first-round selections, but not enough hits in the rounds to follow.
Kantrovitz taking over the department is going to represent a radical shift and a less dogmatic approach. Yes, his philosophical beliefs align with the Cubs in many ways. Kantrovitz is statistically-minded first and foremost, but someone that took the time to work in the trenches and develop his scouting chops. In three years as the Cardinals scouting director (2012-2014), Kantrovitz made 22 picks in the top five rounds, and 64% of those came from four-year universities. The Cubs over that time selected from the NCAA ranks with 59% of their first five round selections.
The difference is outside of top ten picks, the Cubs had zero of those other 14 selections accrue more than 0.2 WAR in the big leagues. Nine of Kantrovitz’ 22 selections haven passed that point already.
At The Athletic, Sahadev Sharma wrote about how Kantrovitz and the Cubs organization are preparing for this unique 2020 Draft. It’s impossible for any organization to have as many data points as they might in a normal year, given that some prospects never even saw their final amateur season begin this spring. This is significant for someone as analytically-driven as Kantrovitz, whose roles in St. Louis and Oakland both involved building R&D systems around the MLB Draft. But it’s not a death knell.
The Cubs have taken the opportunity to use a more organizational all-hands-on approach, meeting with potential draftees and signees via Zoom calls that include members from the player development staff. Justin Stone and Craig Breslow will have plans for the Cubs draft picks the moment they’re selected. This Kantrovitz quote from Sahadev’s piece jumped out to me:
“In a strange way, I feel as well-prepared for this draft as any in that sense,” Kantrovitz said. “That’s not to say there isn’t going to be some added uncertainty this year. But I think whatever opportunities we lost in terms of potentially seeing these players, I feel like we made up for it at least some of it by just getting to know these players in a different way. There could be sort of a silver lining, if you will, in that sense.”
As I look at Kantrovitz’ draft history, it’s hard to find a real pattern. He’s had success with big, physical pitchers, be it Michael Wacha from the college ranks or Jack Flaherty out of high school. In 2012, he drafted three third baseman in the first two rounds – Stephen Piscotty, Patrick Wisdom, Carson Kelly – and all three have made the Majors … except only one stuck at the hot corner. He likes collegiate middle infielders, as all but one of the last eight drafts he’s worked on (I’ll recognize that Oakland’s 2015-2019 drafts shouldn’t necessarily be attributed to Kantrovitz) saw an NCAA middle infielder plucked in the first five rounds.
I’m convinced we’re going to see the Cubs come away with five players of varying backgrounds and experience when the smoke clears this Thursday. And then they’ll be aggressive to sell the organization’s revamped player development department with some top undrafted free agent signings. And what’s great, is that for the first time in a while, I have total confidence the Cubs won’t limit themselves in who they consider.