I love talking about the MLB Draft. It’s a niche topic even within a nichier section of baseball fandom when we focus on prospects. These players aren’t even professionals. Some won’t even rise to that level of minor league player! Yet as I’ve made the transition for strictly fan to writer and building my own reports on players there is a singular topic that I’m frequently asked about that ties me up in knots. Twitter isn’t a medium where I can do much more than emulate a confused and waffling Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm. Let’s discuss the ups and downs about the 2020 Cubs draft.

Before we get too far down the road, let’s recap what happened. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, MLB owners forced the draft to include only 5 draftable rounds followed by a post draft free agency period where any eligible non-drafted player would receive a maximum of $20,000. I wasn’t following this draft from the perspective of a writer or evaluator, but I still put my opinions out there so I’ll be including tweets from during the draft on the Twitter account I was using at the time.

The Cubs Selections

1 (16th overall): Ed Howard, SS, Mount Caramel HS

2 (51): Burl Carraway, LHP, Dallas Baptist

3 (88): Jordan Nwogu, OF, Michigan

4 (117): Luke Little, LHP, San Jacinto (Texas) JC

5 (147): Koen Moreno, RHP, Panther Creek HS

Post-draft free agency signings: Matt Mervis, Ben Leeper, Scott Kobos, Sheldon Reed, Bailey Reid, Angel Gonzalez, Bryan Serra, Sam Thoreson, Matt Burch, Jacob Wetzel, Bradlee Beesley, Graham Lawson, Scott McKeon

Critiquing the Draft

As we reflect on the draft, none of the following is meant to disparage any of the players selected or signed from the 2020 draft. We can, however, discuss the processes of each selection.

So far the returns on the 2020 draft haven’t been promising. While many fans in July of 2020 were already penciling in Burl Carraway to the September bullpen and dreaming of Howard winning gold gloves in short order, both prospects have been at a stalemate in development. There are many justifiable reasons for this, but ultimately this is a game built on processes that are judged on results. Let’s discuss.

Mocking the 2020 Draft

In an effort of self-reflection, I’ll examine who I would have taken in the 2020 draft. We didn’t have baseball so without anything else to do I put out a five round mock selecting right before the first round. Each round was a preferred target and an “alternate” in case that prospect wasn’t available in that round.

Pretty clear I love mock drafts and this one looks strong in hindsight. Mitchell and Logan Allen were both available when the Cubs selected in the first two rounds. Ben Hernandez was rumored to be a Cubs target but he didn’t even make it to the second round. Rickey Tiedemann (horribly misspelled in the tweet) was, however. Tiedemann clearly had a high number as no team reached it in 2020. He signed for $644,800 in 2021, showing that 29 other MLB teams missed the boat in a big way. He’s now one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. Similar story for Tyler McDonough who signed in 2021 with the Red Sox. Mitchell Parker was a former Cubs pick that didn’t sign. He went to the Nationals in the 5th round. Especially at this stage I didn’t incorporate bonus pool demands in an official manner, but I believe the following was possible incorporating the bonuses signed in 2020 and 2021:

  1. Garrett Mitchell, CF
  2. Logan Allen, LHP
  3. Rickey Tiedemann, LHP
  4. Tyler McDonough, OF
  5. Mitchell Parker, LHP

Bringing back the legendary, Larry David. Pretty, pretty good. All that’s to say I had fun with this and in hindsight it looks very strong, but we know the real complexities of the draft, let alone the single most-complicated MLB Draft in decades isn’t as easy as picking a handful of players you like. Teams spend thousands of hours constructing draft boards over years prior to a class. Scouting reports are compiled, draft models are adjusted, data is input, and players are checked and cross-checked before a final listing comes out usually right before a draft.

The 2020 draft season was truly something else. Play abruptly came to a halt in March 2020 and no one knew if players would return to the field. Many players in cold water states (Illinois, Ohio, Oregon, etc) never even saw spring game action. Teams were left with little alternative than making best estimates on projecting based on data from the previous year.

The 2020 Chicago Cubs Draft Class

Describing the sheer scope of the changes that would take place in both Chicago Cubs organization and the world at large since this draft would require their own series to cover. At the time, the Cubs had made the playoffs in four out of the past five years. While questions on the team existed, the major league club was still star-studded. Below the surface the minor league system had major question marks. Nico Hoerner, Brennen Davis, and Miguel Amaya were bright spots, but concerns about the organization’s ability to develop pitching dominated the narratives surrounding the Cubs. Even finding competent relievers in the Wi(e)cks – Brad and Rowan – was seen as a milestone. This wasn’t lost on Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer who laid the foundation for what would be sweeping changes within the player development and scouting infrastructure. Dan Kantrovitz, former Assistant General Manager of the A’s, was brought over to lead the scouting department, a position he was familiar with from his time running the St. Louis Cardinals drafts. Craig Breslow was as hired Director of Strategic Initiatives the previous year. Prior to the 2020 season, he was named Director, Pitching/Special Assistant to the President and GM. Justin Stone was named Director of Hitting. It was a long overdue modernization. Projecting who the Cubs would take even in a normal draft season would have been hard to determine. In the unprecedented 2020 cycle? Good luck.

Ed Howard

A draft is judged heavily by the first round pick. It feels like ages ago that hometown hero, Ed Howard, was selected by the Cubs in the first round. As we described above, the initial steps to modernize the player development and scouting infrastructure had only just started. But much of the progress for those organizational changes couldn’t be seen without a minor league season or a full spring training.

It’s important to remember just how well-respected Ed Howard was in 2020. Howard entered the spring as the consensus top high school shortstop in the class. Baseball America ranked Howard he 6th best prep player (Pete Crow-Armstrong 11th, Dylan Crews 16th). Perfect Game ranked Howard seventh overall in the prep class. He was set to debut for the Mount Caramel high school team on March 14th to cement that status. Like for so many across, the country, his senior season wasn’t played. MLB teams would have to consider Howard only based on his baseball acumen prior to the season and any Zoom calls with him prior to the draft.

Ed Howard is a 2020 SS with a 6-2 185 lb. frame from Lynwood, IL who attends Mount Carmel. Long and projectable athletic build. 6.76 runner, has very athletic actions in the middle infield, plays balanced and smooth while showing big range, very fast and sure hands, solid arm strength with a very quick release from multiple arm angles, accurate throws. Right handed hitter, hits from a slightly open stance, simple repeatable load, same lightning quick hands drive the barrel, very good bat speed with loud contact and consistent hard loud barrel, line drive contact now with power to come. Everything in his game is balanced, athletic and explosive and will continue to improve as he gets stronger. Good student, verbal commitment to Oklahoma. Named to play in the Perfect Game All-American Classic.

Perfect Game 2019 Showcase

Leading up to the draft, The Athletics’ Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma identified six prospects they had sourced as being the players the Cubs were zeroing in on with the 16th overall selection

  1. Garrett Mitchell, UCLA, OF
  2. Ed Howard, Mount Carmel High School (IL) shortstop
  3. Austin Hendrick, West Allegheny (PA) High School, OF
  4. Pete Crow-Armstrong, Harvard-Westlake (CA) School, OF
  5. Nick Bitsko, Central Bucks East (PA) High School, RHP
  6. Mick Abel, Jesuit (OR) High School, RHP

I was surprised, but can’t say disappointed on June 10th. He was a top five overall system prospect when I debuted by Ivy Futures initial prospect rankings entering the 2021 season. Fangraphs at this to say about Ed Howard’s selection at 16th overall.

I think Howard is a dude, evaluated with the same FV as the kind of players who sit at the top of most international signing classes. He has feel to hit, is going to stay at shortstop, and he’s going to get stronger as he matures and hit for power without needing a swing overhaul. The latter is almost certainly true based on what the Cubs strength program has been able to do for Brennen Davis, Benny Rodriguez, Cole Roederer, and a lot of the other teenagers in the system. Howard almost went at 10 and was in Philly’s mix at 15.

Fangraph’s Day 1 Recap

Ed Howard began the season with Myrtle Beach, but battled nagging injuries and struggled to adapt to full-season pitching. Playing against the Tampa Bay Rays Low-A affiliate stacked with 22-25 year old starting pitchers certainty didn’t help. Howard’s .225/.227/.315 line in Myrtle Beach in 2021 caused concern, but he entered the 2022 by earning a trip to South Bend. Despite being a cold-weather bat, the brutal South Bend April was very rough on Howard. His first nine games in Hi-A saw him produce a ghastly .125/.237/.125 line. Thankfully he quickly adjusted with a fourteen game stretch with a .320/.382/.440 line. He suffered a horrible hip injury on May 10th.

We’re discussing ultra small samples, but Howard’s brief late adjustment showing at South Bend helps provide optimism. He is only 21 years old and a healthy season in South Bend would set Howard to make an MLB debut in late 2025. Considering the lost 2020 season, radical minor league baseball changes (removal of short-season clubs), and the truly horrific freak hip injury, that’s better than a host of other 2020 first rounders. It’s a lot to ask. We need to see how Howard’s athleticism looks as he recovers from injury. So much of his projection was built on superb shortstop defense. He demonstrated concerns with the bat in the 2021 season and again to begin 2022.

So was it the right call? In a draft as chaotic as 2020, the Ed Howard selection looks a lot better than 4th overall pick, Asa Lacy and 13th overall Patrick Bailey. I’d also take Howard over rumored target Austin Hendrick (12th). He is on a better trajectory than the 18th selection, Bryce Jarvis. Comparing amongst the high school shortstops, he faced late competition from Carson Tucker (23rd) who, unlike Howard, was able to play his spring season prior to the pandemic shutdown so he appealed to clubs reluctant to select a player who didn’t get on the field that spring. Tucker is slashing .139/.287/.234 in his pro career. Mick Abel and Nick Bitsko have dealt with significant arm injuries thus far in their pro career. On the other hand, now-Cubs prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong and Garrett Mitchell went 19th and 20th. Both were linked to the Cubs and each are top 100 prospects. All this is to say, it’s been a mixed bag if we’re just looking at results.

Let’s discuss the Jordan Walker sized elephant in the room. Why didn’t the Cubs take Walker instead of letting the St. Louis Cardinals trip into finding another superstar? Walker wasn’t seen as a consensus first rounder. All credit to both Walker and the Cardinals for this one, but in a season with very few data points, Jordan Walker being taken in the first and signing (he was thought to be going to Duke) was a huge shock. Walker displayed significant swing and miss. He was one of the few high school players that was able to play that spring due to being from Georgia and that helped some teams who wouldn’t draft a player who hadn’t played that spring. Not all views on Walker’s play that spring were strong, however. Fangraph’s Eric Longenhagen noted that he was a fan of Walker, but slid him due to him “looking a little slower and like he might go the [Miguel] Sano route and be a defensive liability in short order”. Ultimately, Jordan Walker has been a resounding success for the Cardinals. This appears to be the next pain in the proverbial side of Cubs fans for a decade. But was passing on Walker for Howard a mistake? In my view only with the benefit of hindsight.

Burl Carraway

Unlike Howard’s selection, unfortunately it’s clear that this pick hasn’t worked out. He’s battled significant lapses in control and is currently working his way back from injuries. The last chapter in the story of Burl Carraway’s career hasn’t been written. He is still capable of coming back from the yips and arm injury to still make the major leagues and contribute. However, the value of taking Burl Carraway here was that he could provide high-leverage relief innings soon. This selection was about balancing near-ready contribution at the cost of long-term ceiling. Even if coming out of the pen later in 2020 wasn’t ever a reasonable expectation, this was a contending team with a need and the hope was that Carraway could be providing high-leverage innings in 2021 and beyond. If Carraway comes up in late 2024 healthy and contributes, that would go a long way, but there was an opportunity cost with this selection.

This is the head-scratching move to me. I questioned it then and I question it even more now. All of pitchers Logan Allen, Nick Swiney, Clayton Beeter, Landon Knack, Bryce Bonnin, and rumored Cubs first base/outfield target Alec Burleson were available and signed for around Carraway’s bonus ($1,000,200) or less. I won’t comment with any knowledge of the behind-the-scenes in the draft room, but this pick always worried me that there was organizational pressure to fill one of the biggest needs (impact LHP reliever) with a higher certainty and quick-moving prospect in Carraway.

Rounds 3-5

This is an area the Cubs have produced solid results. All of Jordan Nwogu (3rd), Luke Little (4th), and Koen Moreno (5th) are making a slow, steady climb up in the system. This will be a big year for both Nwogu and Little as they’re both Rule 5 eligible this upcoming winter. Little, in particular, has made improvements to his repertoire and is throwing a revamped fastball, slider, and a new splitter. Moreno has battled injuries but the stuff has taken a significant step forward. A strong start in AA for Nwogu could land him in Chicago. Overall this has been a solid group of picks.

Even in hindsight there aren’t obvious misses here. All three players have shown upside with Little showing the highest ceiling and prospect ranking. It’s not hard to see a scenario where all three are MLB contributors in consistent roles.

Post-draft free agency

This was a resounding success and hard to justify as anything other than that. Matt Mervis may be the longterm answer at first base. Scott Kobos and Ben Leeper are potential big league pen arms this season. There are also a number of interesting other players still in the system who could be ones to watch in coming seasons. This was a unique opportunity and the Cubs attacked it with the full might of the organization’s brain trust.

Reconciling Everything

It would be disingenuous to say that the Cubs had a very strong draft, even factoring in all the world realities. There were other routes the Cubs could have gone in the first two rounds that still would have fit with organizational fits and needs (hit-forward CFs Mitchell and PCA, LHPs Logan Allen and Nick Swiney). That doesn’t mean that the decision to take Howard was a bad one as outlined above. It’s a draft that helped spur change internally. From a previous piece at North Side Bound, VP of Scouting Dan Kantrovitz discussed the changes post-2020 and drafts going forward, “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.

But this is a draft class that appears to have several prospects on MLB tracks and labeling it as a “disaster” or “failure” doesn’t appropriately capture the assessment of 2020 group. Matt Mervis has performed to the level that one would expect of a late first/early second round selection. Multiple arms are making their way up the system. And Ed Howard has the ability to continue progressing towards a major league debut. The 2020 class is a class defined by the unprecedented and the unexpected on both sides of the spectrum. We’ve seen fluke injury (Howard), yips and injuries (Carraway) balanced by transcendent (Mervis) and solid (Leeper, Kobos, Nwogu, Little, Moreno). With a draft so closely associated with random occurrences, adding even more flukiness to the process is bound to lead to interesting results.

We may look back even just two years from now to see Ed Howard in AAA, Matt Mervis mashing at first base, Jordan Nwogu hitting a late inning home run, and a group of pitchers ready to come out firing heat. Certainly that’s the optimistic view, but it’s not an impossible one. In reflecting on this class I’m even more intrigued to see how it all plays out.