In this case, we’re not lowering our expectations at all because of that lower pool and so I think, you end up having to compete with teams that have more than you or twice as much as you do. You have to probably look at things a little bit differently, and try to be as creative and strategic as you can.Dan Kantrovitz
A special thanks to Dan Kantrovitz, Vice President of Scouting, Chicago Cubs for joining
I have been fascinated with the major league draft since I began following prospects (Mark Prior and Mark Teixeira were the big fish in the 2001 draft). I dreamed of a draft where the Cubs would blow the budget out of the water and bring in a load of impact talent. But since 2012, a new collective bargaining agreement was put into place, and limits on draft spending were implemented. The era of “bonus pools” was here. While it’s debatable whether those changes brought about positive effects to the game of baseball, one thing is quite clear, teams have to enter each draft with a strategy on how they plan to best spend their pool of money.
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Chicago Cubs Vice President of Scouting, Dan Kantrovitz came to the organization in October 2019 after successful stints with both the St. Louis Cardinals and Oakland Athletics. His experience previously running drafts for major league organizations provided a luxury to the Cubs in their search for a new scouting director. Simply put, it’s hard to find a scouting director with years of experience successfully doing the job. Unfortunately for Kantrovitz and the organization as well, due to the COVID-19 pandemic MLB scaled back the 2020 draft to five rounds. Fans would have to wait until 2021 to see his strategy in action with a more complete 20 round draft.
The implementation of bonus pools creates a vastly different drafting experience for organizations. Clubs in the lower tier of market size are gifted “competitive balance selections (extra picks after either the first or second round) and teams who performed worse the previous year pick higher in the draft, which nets them a higher recommended pick values assigned to each selection. Certain clubs are armed with significantly more bonus pool capital than others. In particular, the Cubs’ approximately $7M was dwarfed by teams like Cincinnati and Detroit, who could spend close to double the Cubs’ figure. Kantrovitz described the experience as the Cubs simply playing “a different game” from those organization during the draft, however he was clear that the Cubs would have to employ some creative maneuvers with regard to their bonus pool. According to Kantrovitz, “In this case, we’re not lowering our expectations at all because of that lower pool and so I think, you end up having to compete with teams that have more than you or twice as much as you do. You have to probably look at things a little bit differently, and try to be as creative and strategic, as you can.”
The $200K Bullet
After the Cubs took Jordan Wicks with their first selection, balanced high upside and senior signings in rounds 2-10, and went heavy into prep players on day 3, fans were left wondering just how much money would even be available to move around to the latter round players. Now that some of the dust has settled with player negotiations, Kantrovitz provided some context to his day 3 selections.
We aimed to finish day two, with roughly, $80[k]-$100k in surplus in our pool that would enable us to then fire off a bullet of roughly $200k for one player on day three. We estimated that we could get a player that was a top, two-three round caliber player with that bullet.Dan Kantrovitz
While some teams clearly favored the safety of taking college juniors and seniors who would be the most likely players to sign for the slot max of $125k afforded to players drafted in rounds 11-20, Cubs fans were surprised when seven of the 10 day three selections were high school players. It begged the question of just how much bonus pool flexibility had the Cubs built after taking numerous high-upside players earlier in the draft? According to Kantrovitz, the Cubs planned to be creative in bringing in a player who they viewed as a top two-three round talent (effectively the caliber of player they would take if they had a competitive balance pick) by being in a position to offer one player slightly more than the $125k routinely offered on day three. “We aimed to finish day two, with roughly, $80[k]-$100k in surplus in our pool that would enable us to then fire off a bullet of roughly $200k for one player on day three,” Kantrovitz said. “We estimated that we could get a player that was a top, two-three round caliber player with that bullet.” If fans are concerned that statement suggests the Cubs will only sign one of the seven prep players on day three, Kantrovitz stated that there the Scouting Department had some good “intel” that there may be quality high school players available who would consider signing for the $125k. It appears that is coming to fruition.
The Changing Landscape of Minor League Baseball
Disclaimer: As these are amateur players that have not signed with the Chicago Cubs, we did not discuss any high school players who have not agreed to terms by the time this episode airs.
Though it was jarring to see the Cubs’ 11th and 12th round selections abruptly signal that they would be going to college, the Cubs expected multiple high school picks selected in the 11-20th rounds to bypass professional ball at this time. In fact, due to the changes in the landscape of minor league baseball such as reducing the number of minor league affiliates and the 180 player-limit, which both went into effect this season, the team wasn’t in a position to be able to bring in a full complement of 20 drafted players in the first place. “Frankly, we weren’t gonna be able to sign 20 players in the draft anyway,” Kantrovitz said. He further went to to describe the balance the Cubs’ Scouting Department weighed during day 3 between bringing in quality players and the effect that player would have on others within the organization. “I remember talking with our guys [the Scouting Department] and PD (Player Development). It was pretty clear when you look at our rosters out there, unless there was a player who we just loved (say a college position player), there wasn’t going to be an obvious spot for him to just go into Myrtle [Beach] and get played time,” Kantrovitz said. “He had to be better than who we already have. And so, again, I think my mindset going in was, one, can we get this caliber of player after the draft (when we’re talking about college players on day three)? And then two, is he better than what we already have? And do we want this player taking at bats over a 19 year old prospect that’s still coming into his own at Myrtle [Beach]?”
Kantrovitz provided significantly more context in the full interview (available here) behind the selection of Wicks and how the Cubs pivoted plans because he was too good to pass up. He also went into great depth about their day two selections and the 2020 and 2021 non-drafted free agents. It was striking to hear how excited the organization is about their draft. Though a scouting director would be performing malpractice if they were publicly disappointed in their draft selections, it was clear that the organization is a big believer in the caliber of talent that should be brought in when the final signings are official. Cubs fans know how much one stellar draft class can impact the entire organization and while it will be difficult to judge this group for several years, the early results suggest this group will be one to watch.
Want to hear far more insights into the strategy of the Chicago Cubs during the 2021 draft? Curious about the impact of non-drafted free agents from 2020 and 2021? The full interview is available here.