The Major League Baseball 2022 draft is about a month away and teams are furiously compiling reports. In the coming weeks, the NCAA Super Regionals and College World Series, MLB Draft Combine, and the Cape Cod League all will produce even more data for scouts, analysts, and executives to pour over as teams build their overall draft board.
And for Cubs fans, this draft brings even more excitement than in recent years. The Cubs’ first-round pick (seventh overall) is the earliest selection in the round since 2014’s fourth overall. Naturally, in a season where the minor league club’s games sometimes attract more attention than those at Wrigley Field, fans are eager to know more about the next class of players who will enter the system this July. The Cubs VP of Scouting, Dan Kantrovitz, was kind enough to spend time out of his busy schedule to discuss the larger 2022 draft narratives and offer some philosophical views on his role as a scouting director.
A frequent question that Todd and I receive about the draft is “what is the strength of the [draft] class?”. Fans want to know whether they should focus on high school hitters or how strong is the college pitching this season. From an outside perspective, it’s easy for narratives from this season to run rampant, however, from an inside perspective, Kantrovitz focuses on the bigger picture.
“I think a lot has been made, at least in some of the third party publications, of the potentially disproportionate number of high school bats in the conversation up top or, or similarly, the lack of college arms. Candidly, I’m not sure how much to make of that at this point. You can argue to play to the strength of the draft and you can also probably make an argument to stick to a strategy independent of the strengths or weaknesses of the class. I feel like if you put too much stock into trying to zig when other teams are zagging, you might end up maybe outsmarting yourself, and just shouldn’t get too far away from your compass of best player available,” Kantrovitz said. “So, while I appreciate that it’s always interesting to construct a narrative based on the different demographics, at this point, our challenge is to just try to keep it simple and line up our board based on our view of them.”
Diving deeper into this draft class, it’s hard not to be impressed with the sheer number of players whose relatives had long and storied major league careers. Names like Jackson Holliday (Matt Holliday), Cam Collier (Lou Collier), Justin Crawford (Carl Crawford) are just a few of the many names with what is termed “bloodlines”. Teams have split opinions on how to value a player with bloodlines due to the complexity of each individual situation. From a Cubs perspective, it’s all about really digging into the player’s background and history. Kantrovitz echoes that complexity, “This question is a bit more complicated than it might seem. For instance, having a recognizable last name is one thing. But then there’s the whole nature versus nurture debate too, right? I think our task -or a part of our task – is to question what physical projection might be remaining based on where the player is physically but also based on his family background. And, perhaps if a player comes from a family that has been very athletic, there could be more encouraging outcomes for that player relative to his peers. Or another angle could be how advantageous it may have been, say from a skill development standpoint, to grow up around a clubhouse and be able to model the behavior of your dad’s co-workers, if those co-workers happen to be big leaguers? It’s a great question – there are just so many facets to it.
“In terms of where we see the value, and does it have value? I think absolutely [it does]. Ultimately, it falls under the umbrella of what we think this player has been exposed to, how he may have used or not used that to his advantage and how many, if any additional development opportunities might be remaining,” Kantrovitz concluded.
Along with evaluating bloodlines, it becomes just one factor in a multitude of data that teams, including the Cubs, accumulate when creating their prospect reports. With the sheer quantity of data the Cubs have on prospects, how do they not lose sight of the broader picture in prospect evaluation? According to Kantrovitz, it isn’t easy, but there is a consistent effort to validate the information and put it into perspective. “It’s a challenge to not let the signal you’re looking for get drowned out by noise. In a pre-draft workout, for example, there are going to be some features or attributes of players that you might be able to measure or estimate with quite a bit of precision. Things like a player’s speed [or] power output. But just because you can measure something doesn’t always mean it’s useful data in a decision-making context. And so, our challenge is to objectively look at every measurable we have and to try to determine if it packs predictive power to the phenomena we are trying to gain insight…which players are going to be productive big leaguers. We lean heavily on Cory Kennedy from our high performance team to help us make sense of some of those data,” Kantrovitz said.
“That said, we also don’t want to miss an opportunity to collect data that could serve as the backbone of analysis for something down the road,” Kantrovitz continued. “And, lastly, even if we can’t immediately validate something, it also doesn’t mean it’s not useful, which can get tricky. I mean, sometimes, we don’t want to wait to have complete validation, especially if we think the advantage could be short-lived.”
Reflecting on Past Drafts
As Kantrovitz has reflected on his time with the Cubs, it’s hard to overstate the enormous organizational challenges that occurred stepping into the role in November 2019 only for most of the 2020 season to be wiped by the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s proud of the work of the entire scouting department and the processes they’ve built for the future. “Yes, I do feel like there was a bit of an overhaul you could say from 2020 to 2021, both in terms of systems and processes, but also in terms of personnel in the office and out in the field. And I’m not saying that the demographics or results of our 2022 draft will look or resemble anything like the 2021 draft, but the underlying processes are going to be similar to 2021,” Kantrovitz concluded.
Within the context of the 2020 class, the reduced number of selections (an almost preposterous five rounds) and capped post-draft free agency meant that the Cubs had to be incredibly creative and thorough in how they went about their draft preparation. Kantrovitz is proud of the work the entire team accomplished in extraordinary circumstances. The post-draft free agents include multiple breakout performers this season. From Ben Leeper and Scott Kobos knocking on the door to Wrigley’s bullpen to Matt Mervis having a breakout season in AA and Angel Gonzales showing incredible stuff in Myrtle Beach (among many more successes), it’s been an incredible year for the 2020 post-draft free agents. I wanted to hear how Kantrovitz felt about the class two years later. “I think I’ve also made it a point to say how collaborative not only that draft was but the post-draft process as well,” Kantrovitz said. “R&D, PD (Player Development), the front office, obviously the scouts, everybody helped. To your point, I am very proud of the work we did and think we eventually signed some quality prospects. Typically after the draft, there is plenty of work still to be done, whether it’s negotiating with agents, coordinating physicals, or working with PD on player placement. But, there are also usually a few minutes to breathe and reflect on the draft. In 2020, the draft ended later at night and we all just kept cranking. Jed (Hoyer), Theo (Epstein), Bres (Craig Breslow), Stony (Justin Stone), and even Rossy (Cubs front office member turned manager, David Ross), were all very responsible for the after-the-draft signs in 2020. So, yeah, I’m proud of it because we invested a lot of time into it and it’s really satisfying to see some of the players go out and perform,” Kantrovitz said.
Adding to the complexity of learning and adapting processes from 2020 into the 2021 draft cycle, there was the possibility that the Cubs would have to hunt for a new VP of Scouting. Only a year after he accepted the position, the Los Angeles Angels invited Kantrovitz to interview for their General Manager position. It is bittersweet to see your team’s top executives be sought after by other organizations. Fortunately, Kantrovitz declined to interview and stayed in Chicago. While there have been many theories why, I wondered if it was in part because the front office was giving him something that every scouting director would dream of, the full authority and ability to reshape their department exactly how they wanted. While Kantrovitz wouldn’t comment on that, he did say “I just felt like I had barely started and there was so much more to do in terms of running a draft the way I had envisioned, with all the scouts in the room and without a truncated season. So, leading into 2021, with Jed’s leadership, we had the opportunity to modernize our decision-making apparatus, our approach to modeling the data, our personnel in the field, really the entire process. And, that’s on-going, at least to some degree, even now. Personally, that was and is the challenge I was hoping for,” Kantrovitz said.
Kantrovitz elaborated that the heightened competition of scouting was incredibly appealing in keeping him in his current role.
“The competitive landscape is as challenging as it’s ever been. Every team out there seems to be really good at drafting now and seems to be really smart. So, it’s a constant evolution and its probably right to never feel too comfortable or confident in this space because we all know how competitive it is. Another aspect of this job that I believe is unique is the collaboration with other really talented people like Bres’ (Cubs VP of Pitching and Assistant GM Craig Breslow) on the pitching side and Stoney (Cubs Director of Hitting Justin Stone) on the hitting side. Stoney, Bres, and really their entire staffs are just so talented and knowledgeable; it’s a lot of fun to learn how they approach development and how that could give us an advantage in the draft. Last year, in particular, I believe we were able to align fairly well in terms of leveraging the scouting evaluations to identify the raw materials if you will, that our development staff is so good at working with”
The MO of the best organizations is to get as many smart people in the room as possible. It’s why we see top-tier organizations frequently boast robust front offices. But what about when multiple smart people in the room have all held the same title in the past. What is the dynamic when the draft room hosts Kantrovitz (current Scouting Director) along with Jaron Madison and Matt Dorey (former Cubs Scouting Directors)? Thankfully, Kantrovitz dispelled any concerns about toe-stepping. According to the current VP, “It can only help to have experienced evaluators on your staff, and both Matt and Jaron bring different and really valuable perspectives to what we’re doing. Jaron in particular spends all spring and summer covering the entire country alongside Marti Wolever and Ron Tostenson. Those three absolutely crush it and it’s hard to imagine doing this without the three of them. We have some incredible area scouts as well and not to take anything away from them, but we are really lucky to have Jaron, Ron, and Marti covering the country the way they do. We also have some really talented folks in the office on the amateur side, including Scottie [Munson], Ben [Kullavanijaya], and Michael [Meagher]. If I remember correctly, you gave Ben a shout-out based on his well-deserved reputation for finding the best deep-dish [pizza] for our draft room. But what you might not know is that he’s also a highly skilled draft analyst who is capable of wearing a lot of different hats. I’m really fortunate because it’s a talented group.” Kantrovitz added.
In approximately a month, the Chicago Cubs organization will be bristling with another exciting class of players. A big part of the reason this is a System on the Rise is the dedicated work and long hours put in by the entire scouting department to find the right players and right people to add to the organization. Thank you to Cubs Vice President of Scouting, Dan Kantrovitz for taking the time to provide a peek behind the curtain of the processes and how the Cubs have worked to find players on the next great Cubs team.