Cubs’ Revamped Scouting, Development Strategies Evident Even in Abbreviated Draft

You won’t often hear professional sports teams openly admit their shortcomings in a public forum, but the Cubs’ flaws when it came to pitching development had become so obvious that they had no other choice. I mean, when Rob Zastryzny is still your most successful homegrown pitching product in the last decade, well, the results speak for themselves.

Rather than looking for tools that jumped off the page, the Cubs scouted for consistency. They wanted pitchers who could stay healthy and eat innings, a strategy that led to them selecting players whose ceilings were either too low or required perfect circumstances to reach.

“We probably were a little more conservative back in the day,” former senior VP of player development and scouting Jason McLeod explained in early 2019. “As we thought about pitching, we tried to fit everyone neatly into a box. And so we put so many checks on guys, I feel, that we probably walked by some guys that didn’t meet certain criteria at the time. We were being probably a little too conservative.

That same conservative strategy extended beyond player evaluation and into the development process, which had grown to rigid and generic. At the same time the Astros and other teams were fostering significant increases in pitch velocity across their system, Cubs pitching prospects on the whole remained static or even saw alarming decreases.

“We have to re-evaluate what we’re doing because it hasn’t been working,” McLeod said. “So it’s really just that, looking at ourselves and what are some of the things we can do to change it up. Obviously you’re looking at what other teams are doing too, teams that have been increasing velocity or increasing swings and misses, and you look at all of that information and try to see what they’ve been doing.”

In the time since those admissions, the Cubs have conducted an internal overhaul of their scouting and development departments, most notably by moving McLeod to a new role and replacing him with Dan Katrovitz. The changes to hitting and pitching infrastructure throughout the system isn’t likely to produce results this season, if only because there won’t be minor league baseball in any traditional sense, though the Cubs’ revamped philosophies were on clear display even in a dramatically abbreviated draft.

Top pick Ed Howard may have been the best prep shortstop prospect in the draft, but he’s also the first high school position player this front office has selected since Albert Albert Jr., the Cubs pick Theo Epstein oversaw. His slick defense and obvious athleticism can carry him while his hit tool develops, a process that could take a few years. That’s a distinctly different plan from going for more polished college bats that are expected to move through the system quickly.

As great a story as Howard — who starred for Jackie Robinson West Little League and Mt. Carmel HS — is for the Cubs, he’s not the best example of the new point of view Kantrovitz brings. For that, we look to the next four picks that came Thursday evening and showed a focus on loud power tools that will need to be refined without being stifled. That’s a tricky balance the Cubs hadn’t previously trusted their infrastructure to maintain, so this draft shows a renewed faith in the process.

“We prioritized tools — no doubt,” Kantrovitz said of selecting slugger Jordan Nwogu out of Michigan with their third pick. “And I think in his case, there’s impact speed, there’s impact power, and I think probably the latter is what stands out the most. He impacts the ball about as hard and as loud as anybody in college baseball today.”

Second pick Burl Carraway may follow in Nico Hoerner’s footsteps as the first player from his draft class to debut, especially since the Cubs are keeping him in the bullpen. Rather than trying to stretch him out and risk losing a few ticks from a fastball that kisses triple digits, they’ll give him the chance to let his stuff eat.

“He could end up being a fast mover,” vice president of scouting Dan Kantrovitz said. “He’s got an upper-90s, explosive fastball that’s comparable to some of the better big league fastballs today. And he’s got two different types of breakers that are true knee-bucklers. We feel like he’s an impact arm.”

Kantrovitz used the word “upside” when talking about their final two picks, juco southpaw Luke Little and prep righty Koen Moreno, with the former standing out as a perfect project for pitching director Craig Breslow and his team. Dude was clocked at 105 mph during a recent workout and can basically sit 100+ with the fastball, but the 19-year-old walked more batters (36) than innings pitched (35.1) for San Jacinto Junior College.

“He’s going to be somebody that we’re going to, I think, really just leverage the resources and instructors and technology in our player development operation,” Kantrovitz explained. “Whether that’s in pitch design, whether that’s in refining his mechanics or getting consistency in release point, he definitely has some work to do.”

The most important aspect of the Cubs new development infrastructure, whether it’s pitching or hitting, is that the organization isn’t taking a cookie cutter approach. They aren’t looking at how deliveries or swings should look in general, but how Jordan Nwogu’s swing should look for Jordan Nwogu or how Luke Little’s throwing mechanics should work for Luke Little.

That kind of customized instruction would seem like a given for an organization once thought to have lived on the cutting edge of technology and analytics, but the Cubs only recently took meaningful steps in that direction. By really digging into each player’s individual biomechanics, instructors should be better able to tailor changes that improve performance while also lessening obstacles to adoption. After all, a tweak based on how an athlete’s natural pattern of movement is probably going to be easier to incorporate than one based on what a coach thinks should be happening because it’s what he or she was taught.

So rather than drafting players they felt safe with, Cubs sought elite talent and put faith in their system to bring out the most in it over the coming years. That’s almost certain to be the case in undrafted free agency as well, since cutting 35 rounds from the draft leaves over 1,000 eligible players out there who otherwise would have been selected by another team.

The draft is an exciting time under normal circumstances, let alone when you’re talking about a team with a whole new perspective on the process. Add in baseball’s current stalemate and you’ve got a whole new ball of wax. With full admission that confirmation bias may be influencing my assessment, I really do believe we saw very clear evidence that the Cubs have moved in a new direction when it comes to scouting and development.

It’ll take time before we’ll be able to make any definitive pronouncements, of course, but I really like what I’m seeing in this very early stages.

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