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4 Cubs questions ahead of the 2020 MLB Draft

1 month agoLance Brozdowski

The Cubs have the 16th overall pick in the first round, their highest since 2015 when they selected Ian Happ ninth overall.

This draft, however, is different.

It will last only five rounds, 35 less than normal, with two shortened competitive balance rounds and a round of compensation picks for signed free agents. Players will be paid $100,000 of their bonuses this year, with the rest deferred into 2021 and 2022. The changes have led to a lot of questions about the future of the draft and minor league baseball. Below are answers to a variety of thoughts to help Cubs fans understand this draft and its impact on the future of baseball and the organization.

“It’s more challenging this year than it’s ever been,” said Dan Kantrovitz, the Cubs new vice president of scouting. “But we’ve always been faced with trying to compare players with varying degrees of data, varying amounts of data. And this year, it’s just a little more strange.”

How will the Cubs approach their first pick (16th overall)?

With this draft’s unprecedented challenges, the expectation as to which player will be selected is harder to predict than ever. The information used by the public to predict first-round selections often has to do with an organization’s past selections under their current scouting directors and highest-level decision makers. 

“Our goal every year is to give us as many options as possible in the draft,” Kantrovitz said. “What that means is trying to put ourselves in position to take any player that might be available at our pick. Whether that’s a pitcher, a hitter, a high school player or a college player.”

The Cubs have made six first-round selections since 2013, all of which have been college players. It’s no surprise that three of the leading publications which release mock drafts (Fangraphs, Baseball America and The Athletic) all had the Cubs selecting a college pitcher in the first version of their predictions.

The hiring of Kantrovitz in November 2019 is one of the biggest changes to how the Cubs will draft Wednesday. The effects of his hiring, however, won’t be clear until years down the road, as he and the organization focus on utilizing the ample player development resources in the organization to refine the team’s draft picks into impact players. This development comes in tandem with preparations for the 2021 draft, which start just days after the 2020 draft concludes.

Maybe the Cubs will maintain their affinity for college players under Kantrovitz. Or maybe they’ll see a high school player fall out of the Top 10 and decide not to pass up his value.

“It’s a really good draft, so we think we’re in a good position at 16,” Theo Epstein said on Cubs 360 Daily Tuesday. “It’s deep in terms of pitching — both college and high school pitching. A lot of good high school position players. Depending on how the board breaks, it might be a little thin with college position players at 16, but you never know how the board breaks. We’re excited. We think we’e gonna get a really good player.”

How were these players evaluated with such a small sample of college and high school games from 2020?

Most players to be selected in this draft have an extensive track record of performance. For teams with investments in amateur scouting, an organization will likely have multiple years of reports and data to inform any decision being made. 

Scouting directors undoubtedly wish they had a larger sample of data from the 2020 season for any player being selected, but the playing field in this respect is even for all teams. College players will have just over two full seasons of performance for teams to analyze (unless they’re draft-eligible sophomores). The best high school players will have stats and data from national showcases and events like the Perfect Game All-American Classic, held annually for the nation’s top high school talents at Petco Field in San Diego.

Kantrovitz has unearthed some positives takeaways:

“In terms of the challenges of a draft, some are obvious and some are less so as it relates to navigating through the pandemic right now,” Kantrovitz said. “For starters, I think we’ve all gotten pretty adept at using Zoom and [Microsoft] Teams and every other remote conferencing tool, but on a serious note, I will say this is a time of year where we typically don’t have access to players. 

“We’re normally going to watch them play games; they’re preparing for their playoffs and postseason runs if they’re college players. But this year in particular, we’ve had a unique level of access to them for two-plus months and we’ve been able to get to know these players on a level we otherwise wouldn’t have. From that standpoint, there’s been some positives to take out of it. I think the reality is everybody has had to be a little bit more creative. The draft is always a situation where you’re making a decision based on imperfect information, and I think that’s particularly true this year.”

Where will draftees play without a minor league season?

Although cancellation of Minor League Baseball across the country has not been made official, reports abound that there will not be minor league baseball this season as we’ve come to love. That likely means no baseball in Iowa, Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, or South Bend this season.

Where draftees will play is a question without a definite answer.

For now, there is a possibility that the Cubs and other teams could include a 2020 first-round pick or other top prospects on their extended pool of players to supplement their major league roster, known as a “taxi squad,” if there is a season. This would guarantee the player some form of competitive at-bats, even if league rules allow only for intrasquad matchups. 

Including a player on a taxi squad would be an elevated form of practice and hands-on development with an organization’s coaches. Though, not much can replace preparation for a competitive game and live at-bats against new pitchers.

If a team decides not to add a draftee to their taxi squad, they could be limited to remote training until the fall unless MLB allows players beyond taxi squads to congregate at Spring Training complexes like Sloan Park.

There is also the possibility that the Arizona Fall League and fall instructional leagues are expanded and started earlier to accommodate for as many players as possible. This would allow prospects and newly drafted players to have competitive at-bats against similar level talent in other organizations, an integral part of development.

In 2019, seven Cubs prospects — including catcher Miguel Amaya and middle-infielder Zack Short — played for the Mesa Solar Sox. The abundance of facilities in Arizona could feasibly give each team the chance to send three or four more players to a team or combination of teams. For other players at lower levels not ready for elevated play of the Arizona Fall League, expanded instructional leagues could mean talent from Class A and High-A clubs are represented as opposed to just new draftees or players from short season leagues.

These ideas, however, come with the uncertainty of how the COVID-19 pandemic will progress into the fall. 

What does the reduction in rounds mean for future drafts?

In short, future drafts will be loaded with talent.

High school players who are not selected or choose not to sign can attend a junior college for one season and re-enter the draft pool in 2021. If they choose to fulfill their college commitment, they’ll be eligible to enter the 2022 or 2023 draft, as a sophomore or junior, depending on their age. College juniors who are not selected can return to school for their senior season.

Players who go undrafted this year can sign with a major league organization for $20,000 instead of fulfilling their college commitment, heading to an independent league or attending junior college for one year. This signing bonus is much less than a sixth or seventh rounder would get in a normal, 40-round draft. For example, last season the Cubs signed sixth-rounder Ethan Hearn for just under $1 million and eighth-rounder Davidjohn Herz for $500,000. Signing bonuses in the 12th and 13th rounds still fetch around $125,000 in a regular year.

“I think the fact that it’s five rounds changes a lot of your strategy and it makes the after-the-draft guys that much more important,” Epstein said. “We spent a lot of time trying to identify the best players who might not get drafted and they’re all in consideration for our picks in the 4th and 5th rounds. Build relationships with them, exchange information about their development and how we see their futures and familiarize them with the Cubs organization to try to put ourselves in the position where if that player does end up deciding to sign for $20,000 rather than going back to school or pursuing another option, that the Cubs are an attractive landing spot for them.

“It’s a unique opportunity we won’t see again — taking a terrible situation with the pandemic and the lack of college baseball, lack of high school baseball — and making the best of it. We built some really solid relationships, got to know these players. I think it will serve us well, whether they sign with us now or we have an opportunity down the road to possibly acquire them.”

Although the effects of reducing the draft to five rounds won’t be too noticeable on the upcoming draft day, it will create strong pools of talent in future drafts and spur a large supply of players without a team still seeking to fulfill their major league dreams.

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