“Kept the Accelerator Down”: Talking Draft Strategy with Cubs VP Dan 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.

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.

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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
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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.

Erian Rodriguez appears to be a high school player who agreed to sign for the $125k slot

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]?”

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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.

Luke Little is Eager to Show He has More Than Velocity

We’re just fiddling with [the curveball]. We’re still working on pitch design just a little bit, but the curveball is definitely gonna be the one that we’re gonna be messing around with a lot of changing grips, changing arm slots.

Luke Little
(Left to right) Peyton Remy, Ben Leeper, Cole Roederer, and Luke Little (behind Roederer) by Rich Biesterfeld (@biest22)

A special thanks to Luke Little for joining

If you only know Luke Little from his Instagram posts where he showcased ridiculous velocity, then you aren’t alone. Little received widespread attention after he showed a video hitting 102 mph and then followed up with another hitting 105 mph. For reference, the record for a pitch was a 105.8 mph fastball from former Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman. That Chapman pitch was originally listed as 105.1 mph, but that has been officially changed to 105.8 mph. Little acknowledged the notoriety from sharing his heat on social media; however, for a player trying to put himself in a solid position to be drafted, even he couldn’t have imagined major league all-stars reaching out to him.

Mr. 105, Luke Little, with the pitch that gained widespread notoriety

“It was honestly crazy to me. Because when I was in college, my bullpens weren’t that intensified like I was I couldn’t get up into the upper 90s, like I do in games and bullpens just because the intensity wasn’t there for me, but I was on a new throwing program once the season got caught so I was on, I was just feeling so much better and then bullpen comes around. I wasn’t expecting much come to find out I was sitting like 100 and that bullpen. And then I posted all that I posted on Twitter posted on Instagram he got so much buzz. And then two weeks later I had the 105 and I posted that on Twitter post that on Instagram and that way, crazy, on, on Twitter I had like almost a million views. And some of the stars that had reached out to me like Christian Yelich had retweeted my stuff, talking about bats and stuff. And then I posted on my Instagram story and Josh Donaldson was DM’ing me a little bit about it so I thought it was really cool to talk to those two. Of course, since those are two of the best players in the league right now of course Christian Yelich is probably top five in the league right now. So it was all crazy.

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There’s no denying that velocity will be Luke Little’s calling card. Whether he’s bringing heat out of the pen or trying to maintain velocity in a starter’s role, the fastball will be a critical pitch for Little to command and execute. Elite velocity from the left side is still elite velocity from the left side. However, Little knows that his fastball can only take him so far. As he builds up to prepare for his first professional, pitch design of his other three pitches (curveball, slider, changeup) is a key focus. The curveball, in particular, is the pitch that has Little intrigued about its future projection. I asked him if he would be adopting the spike-curve (like so many of the Cubs pitchers have), and Little noted that he and the pitching development staff are still in the design phase for the pitch.

“We’re just kind of fiddling around with it,” Little said. “We’re still working on pitch design just a little bit, but the curveball is definitely gonna be the one that we’re gonna be messing around with a lot of changing grips, changing arm slots. So that’s going to be the big kind of construction pitch.”

Luke Little by Rich Biesterfeld (@biest22)

As soon as the Cubs called Luke Little’s name during the 4th round of the 2020 draft, I remember hearing commentary that the Cubs took the two best left-handed relief pitchers in the draft. Admittedly, I thought the same. With his elite velocity, the Cubs could have Little focus on one secondary pitch and fast-track him out of the pen. There’s always a possibility that the future plays out exactly as advertised, but he’s open to any role, according to Little. As someone who has started and relieved in his collegiate career, Little acknowledges each role’s different mentality.

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“I think when I come in to start, I have to be a little bit more strategic just because all my pitches have to be working. When I’m coming in as relief, obviously in college, I could work off a fastball and just kind of stick with that just because of how explosive it was (especially in a junior college setting, or even in a college setting). But I think, definitely starting, I’ll have to be more strategic in getting all four pitches down in the bullpen before [being on] the mound. And then also, I’m not supposed to (I’m not allowing myself to) go out there and blow it out in the first inning. Whereas, if I’m coming in for a relief appearance or closing appearance, which is what I like, I could go out there and blow it out. And if anything happens, I have a secondary pitch or slider, and I don’t really need a change[up] or breaking ball.”

Luke Little may have received major publicity with velocity readings, but he knows there’s more to a pitcher than bringing the heat. He’s eager to get involved work with the pitch development team. Most fans first heard about the anything but “little” lefthander after he posted those tweets, but Luke Little is excited to make many more highlights in his future.

Full interview coming soon to

Matt Mervis is Ready to Take on Pro Ball

“During the shutdown period between the post draft signing and before instructs, I was able to send [the Cubs developmental staff] video so they could create a plan for me (pre hitting movements just to get my body moving right and drills). So, even when I wasn’t able to to be in person with the coaches, they were able to help me develop.”

— Matt Mervis

Matt Mervis in Instructs by Rich Biesterfeld (@Biest22)

A drastically shorted 2020 MLB Draft led to dramatic changes in amateur and professional baseball. Not only were teams hyper focused on a five round draft, but college players grappled with the decision of whether to accept the additional year of eligibility granted to them by the NCAA or to pursue professional baseball. High School players were left with an even greater decision since their scholarship may be taken by a college player who chose to stay for that additional year. An additional wrinkle was that players who weren’t drafted would only be eligible to sign for a max of $20,000 (over $100,000 less than previous years) in a post-draft signing period. Needless to say, the five round 2020 MLB draft limited the player pool who decided to enter professional ball. So it was very surprising that as the start of the post-draft signing period began, the Chicago Cubs landed a bevy of quality prospects, including a slugger from Duke who dabbled with pitching in his college career, in Matt Mervis.

A special thanks to Matt Mervis for joining

In a post-draft landscape with all teams capped at offering more than a $20,000 signing bonus, non-drafted players became true free agents. With money largely out of the equation, players could meet with teams before deciding which organization would provide the best developmental system capable of helping the players reach their highest potential. It turns out the significant investment in the hitting and pitching infrastructure paid big dividends already for the Chicago Cubs. According to Mervis, he had the opportunity to connect with the Cubs’ hitting director. “Talking to Justin Stone a bunch before (both before the draft and after the draft passed) before the free agent signing period [meant a great deal]. I liked a lot of what he had to say, and they had a clear plan for me before I even signed.”

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Mervis’s interest with the Cubs’ pitch ran far deeper than the hitting infrastructure. In fact, 2020 Cubs Stan Zielinski Scout of the Year Award winner, Billy Swoope, was instrumental in connecting with Mervis years prior to the draft. “I’ve actually had a pretty decent relationship with the Cubs going back to my high school days. I was playing in a tournament in either Georgia or Florida I can’t remember which. And I hadn’t been invited to East Coast pro yet which I was working hard to get invited to, and the team in my region was filled up and after one of my games down there Billy Swoope (one of the college area scouts) came over to me and said, ‘we want to take you out of your region and have you play for the Midwest region’, which happened to be the Cubs that year,” Mervis said. “So that kind of started my relationship with Billy, which has continued throughout the years. I talked to him throughout college. He was really insistent on ‘we want to get you in a Cubs uniform’, and ‘I really like you’. So he was a big piece of it.”

Matt Mervis at Instructs by Rich Biesterfeld (@biest22)

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Matt Mervis is glad to be in professional baseball, but he’s still able to reflect on the significant impact COVID-19 played on the remainder of his senior season at Duke. While preparing to take on the rival North Carolina Tar Heels, the final call was made to postpone (and ultimately cancel) the season. The fast-paced nature of attempting to mitigate the spread of the pandemic left the players without time to prepare for the reality that their seasons or, even, college careers might be over. “In the middle of batting practice, we just got called off the field and were told to go in the locker room. From there, it was about a three-day decline from ‘We’re hopeful that we can play this weekend’ into ‘Okay, pack your stuff and go home’ to ‘Clear out of campus.’ Obviously, things escalated really quickly” Mervis said. You can read more about the impact of COVID-19 on Matt Mervis, multiple other amateur players, and even amateur baseball, itself, in a piece I published on Cubs Insider.

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The fall of 2020 brought a sense of normalcy to minor league baseball players, Mervis included. After months of uncertainty, players were finally able to participate in Instructs (fall instructional league). The experience at Instructs pales in comparison to playing in front of fans from affiliates like Myrtle Beach or South Bend, but it was baseball. Real baseball. Mervis took advantage of the situation putting up a monstrous 1.150 OPS in 20 games, however it was a wake-up call related to his defense that he felt shaped his goals for 2021. “I think just continuing what I was working on it in Instructs. I spent a lot of time with early work with infielders doing stuff and I had a little struggle in the middle of instructional [ball], which was kind of an eye opener to me because I was pretty solid defensively in college,” Mervis said. “I think that was probably the best time for it to happen, not during a regular season, but having that struggle in my first bout of professional baseball was good because I’m not just a hitter. I have to be a complete player player if I want to advance and keep moving up the system.”

“So, continuing to work on defense work on my footwork, work on my hands, work on my rhythm. And then, just continuing my development plan. I think [Justin] Stone and a bunch of the other hitting coaches that were there, gave me a really solid plan that I that I worked on every morning before we went out to the field and warmed up and took that in practice itself. It helped me get into my rhythm for the day to feel where my swing is at. And then just continuing to develop that plan before I go out and hit [before I] master the motions of what makes my swing feel good and what makes what makes it work.”

Fans should be excited to watch a polished college hitter move up the ranks of the minor league affiliates as he works to make himself a complete player. Matt Mervis lost the remainder of his college career, had his draft plans significantly altered, and had to wait to Fall of 2020 to get into a professional game, but he’s ready to make the wait worth it.

Full interview available on