Cubs VP of Scouting Dan Kantrovitz on the Draft and His Evolving Role

Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Cubs boast one of the top farms systems in the game, and Dan Kantrovitz is a key reason why. The club’s VP of Scouting for each of the last four drafts, Kantrovitz has overseen the selections of first rounders such as Matt Shaw, Cade Horton, and Jordan Wicks. Thanks in part to shrewd drafting, the Cubs’ prospect pipeline is robust on both the pitcher and position player sides.

A St. Louis native, Kantrovitz attended and played baseball at Brown University, where he recorded 208 hits in his four years as the starting shortstop. After he graduated with a degree in Organizational Behavior and Management in 2001, his hometown Cardinals selected him in the 25th round of the MLB draft. Assigned to the Johnson City Cardinals of the Appalachian League, he went 1-for-3 in his first and only professional game; a shoulder injury from his senior year of college flared up again and ended his playing career.

Kantrovitz joined the Cardinals front office in 2004, and a few years later, he went to Harvard for a two-year master’s program in statistics, hoping to develop the skills to keep pace with the growing analytics movement in baseball. He got a job in the Oakland A’s front office upon graduating from Harvard. St. Louis hired him back to be its amateur scouting director in 2012, before he returned to Oakland three years later and worked for five seasons as the the team’s assistant GM. Wanting to get back into a draft-specific role, he took his current position with the Cubs in late 2019. Baseball has changed over his two decades working in front offices, and his understanding of the game and his approach to scouting has evolved with it.

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David Laurila: A number of mock drafts are published prior to the draft itself. Do scouting directors pay attention to them?

Dan Kantrovitz: “I think it would be disingenuous for any scouting director, or front office, to say that they don’t pay attention to mock drafts by respected third-party publications — especially as you get closer to the draft. Now, do we rely on our internal data to make draft decisions? Yes, of course. Do we also want to have an idea of what might happen before and after us? Also a yes. Sometimes mock drafts can be a solid indicator of what the rest of the industry might be thinking. If nothing else, they are certainly fun.”

Laurila: Our own mock draft from last year had you taking Nolan Schanuel, a college first baseman whom the Angels took a few picks before you selected middle infielder Matt Shaw 13th overall. Generally speaking, what are your thoughts on drafting first basemen in early rounds?

Kantrovitz: “Well, you need somebody to play first base at the big-league level. Whether that comes from somebody who was a first baseman throughout his amateur career or somebody that slides down the defensive spectrum… I mean, you can find your eventual major league first baseman through either avenue. Once you adjust your draft list based on replacement level, the defensive spectrum, its still very possible for a first baseman to appropriately be in your mix and I don’t think you can just disregard him. I also don’t think you have a preconceived notion going into the draft that you’re going to stay away from first basemen.”

Laurila: You obviously need to have a high level of confidence that he is going to mash at the highest level…

Kantrovitz: “Yes. The further you slide down the defensive spectrum, the more confident you have to be that the player is going to produce offensively to offset the negative positional adjustment. Aside from the position you project, the projected skill at his position might be just as critical to the valuation.” 

Laurila: Several other shortstops were taken in the first round after you selected Shaw. What separated him from the rest?

Kantrovitz: “What probably stood out most with Matt — and I’d guess it stood out to all evaluators who went in there — is his dynamic, explosive pass, his move to the ball. It really stood out. He’s somebody we expect to be able to maintain that slug as he progresses through the minor leagues and hopefully to the big leagues. He’s constantly working to improve his game on both sides of the ball. He’s exceptionally driven but also cerebral, particularly when it comes to optimizing his training regimen. Just a very mature way that he goes about his business, in addition to his having some pretty impressive offensive thump. Once we combined all of that info and more into our model, he was projected to be the most valuable guy on the board at our pick.”

Laurila: Jumping back to 2020, you drafted Ed Howard 16th overall, three picks before the Mets took Pete Crow-Armstrong, whom your organization then traded for a year later and who is now in the big leagues. What can you tell me about your interest in Crow-Armstrong at the time of that draft?

Kantrovitz: “The first thing that comes to mind is that it was a pretty crazy draft year for a number of reasons. On just a basic level, as a scouting director you want to be able to make comparisons — you want to be in a position where you’ve seen all of the players you’re considering taking — and that obviously wasn’t possible in 2020. Looking back, I kind of shake my head because I didn’t see any of the players we ended up drafting that year.  On a more macro level, we didn’t change much in terms of how our model or decision framework was set up relative to prior years. And in retrospect that was a mistake we learned from. And needless to say, we made quite a few process improvements going into 2021. In any case, I’m just happy, and also lucky, that [President of Baseball Operations] Jed [Hoyer] could pick us up by ultimately trading for PCA, because he seems to be a pretty unique talent.  All that said, we still believe in Ed. To endure all that he’s had to, between the mental and physical recovery from a very serious injury, I’m not going to underestimate him.” 

Laurila: You took Cade Horton — now the top pitching prospect in the organization — seventh overall in 2022. What can you tell me about that pick?

Kantrovitz: “As a scouting department, we had a lot of conviction in him throughout the year. Ty Nichols, our area scout in Oklahoma, did a phenomenal job. Ty was also just inducted into Midwest Scouting Hall of Fame this past year. But from a big picture standpoint [regarding Horton], we were impressed with the unusually steep trend line of improvement following his surgery and return to full health, though what stood out the most was just how loud his stuff was. I was there for his last starts in Omaha and it was almost like you could hear the slider ripping through the air. It was incredible. All of the signs pointed towards somebody who could potentially become a frontline starting pitcher.”

Laurila: Sticking with your first round picks, what about the decision to take Jordan Wicks 21st overall in 2021?

Kantrovitz: “All first round picks, including the handful we’ve talked about, all have a different story I guess. That’s whether it was a scouting driven adjustment, a guy with a pristine performance résumé, or any other number of narratives. Don’t get me wrong, what we do is extremely uncertain and difficult. You can only make the best decision based off your information at the time. But, based off the information we had at the time, it seemed fairly straightforward with Jordan. Our scouts were in complete agreement. Our analytical assessment of his stuff and repertoire signaled big league starter. Makeup, aptitude, durability. It looked like the full package at the time.”

Laurila: James Triantos, a second rounder in 2021, is another player I’m particularly curious about. I’ve read that he touched 96 mph in high school, yet he was drafted, and is being developed, as an infielder…

Kantrovitz: “I’m not sure if we ever saw him touch 96 on the gun. But James is a deluxe athlete. Billy Swoope, our area scout, raved about James’ ability early in the spring. We all got in there and saw he could run, he could throw, he’s explosive. The bat speed stood out. He had uncanny bat-to-ball skills with plus decision-making. We projected his ability to hit for damage to improve. And on the mental side, he’s got laser focus, very goal oriented. When you get an athlete that can do all those things, the sky is the limit.”

Laurila: How much do voices outside of the scouting department influence your decisions? For instance, Craig Breslow, who in December joined the Red Sox as their Chief Baseball Officer, helped mold your pitching-development program, and he obviously weighed some characteristics more than others.

Kantrovitz: “I miss the conversations with Bres. Obviously a brilliant guy. I might have had more dialog with him throughout the year than anybody. We’d usually talk about guys in the system or general philosophies. In terms of philosophical input steering the draft model… if our model needs tweaking in that way, Jed, [GM] Carter [Hawkins] and I will discuss, though the tweaking of a model output is generally more adjusted on the player level than by some overarching philosophy. And while it’s integral to our process to ensure everybody is in the loop, there are only a few voices outside of our scouting department that are systematically baked into our decision-making framework. I’ll consider input from our development coordinators when it comes to things like potential value unlocks. Stony [Justin Stone], Polly [Steven Pollakov], and many others on the hitting side. Casey [Jacobson] and others on the pitching side. There are a lot of really talented people on our PD staff who help considerably with the draft.”

Laurila: That’s a good segue to one more thing I want to ask you about. Having held top scouting roles with three different organizations over the past two decades, you’ve seen firsthand how the job has evolved. What most stands out in that regard?

Kantrovitz: “Over time, I think we’ve seen the role of a scouting director evolve quite a bit in terms of just needing to understand how to take scouting evaluations to a financial valuation. Managing the department, optimizing scouting coverage, developing and retaining good scouts… all those things are as important as ever. But since executing the draft is still arguably the most impactful part of the job, I think it is more important than ever to have a knowledge base in player valuation. I mean, I’ve found that most of the scouting disagreements — in terms of where a player is on the board — stem from the valuation component and its corresponding adjustments more so than the actual scouting evaluations. So, not just interpreting what the scouts are saying but also understanding how to take the model output and make a decision.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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musclepharm52
3 months ago

What a great interview