Jason McLeod’s official title with the Chicago Cubs is Senior Vice President, Player Development and Amateur Scouting. Prior to assuming his current position in November 2011, he worked in the same capacity for the San Diego Padres. Before that he was the scouting director for the Boston Red Sox.
McLeod’s track record – particularly on the amateur scouting side – is impressive. Players drafted under his watch include several big-league all-stars. More recent picks populate top-prospect lists.
The 42-year-old McLeod is slated to interview for the recently-vacated general manager position in San Diego. This interview was conducted prior to Josh Byrnes being fired and McLeod being reported as a possible replacement.
McLeod on scouting, player development and collaboration: “When you look at teams that have historically done well — the Cardinals are an easy example — from an outsider’s perspective you try to glean as much information as you can on how they’ve gone about things. Certainly, you want to model yourself after the organizations that have been most successful in scouting and player development.
“There’s been this adage of scouts versus player development guys, but in my experience I’ve never seen a clear case of we-do-what-we-do and you-do-what-you-do. At least not to any extreme. I’m not sure exactly how many organizations have one guy overseeing both departments, but I’d guess it’s 8-10. I’ve been in that role for a few years now, and I think it‘s obvious that communication is big.
“Scouts — amateur scouts — have a job to do. The scouting director needs a staff and a process in place to make the best decisions possible on draft day. We all know that. You’re trying to pick the most-talented players, the guys with the most upside who can provide the biggest impact for your organization.
“Once you sign those guys, the crux of it becomes: Are we providing the best possible instruction? Are we creating an environment for those players to maximize their abilities? That’s paramount. With this whole scouting and player development collaboration in mind, I think it’s important for the scouts to be aware of what the plan is for those individual players. That’s one place where my role comes in. It’s important for the scouting director, the cross checkers, and the area scouts to have a very good understanding of: Hey, these are the types of players we’d ultimately like to bring into the organization; go find these guys. And once they get here, these are the things we’re going to put into place to fully develop them on multiple fronts.
“We want the player development staff to understand what the scouting staff is trying to do in the draft — and internationally — and vice versa. When a scout goes into a player’s home, he should be able to tell him exactly what’s going to happen once he becomes a member of this organization. He can tell him how we’re going to help him develop all of his abilities. The scout needs to be aware of what the plan will be for that guy.”
On evaluating the scouting staff: “We have a performance review process in place. Most of us [scouting directors and cross checkers] have been area scouts, so we understand the grind. I say this every year when we have our meetings with scouts in January: We know that maybe 90 percent of the work an area scout does will go for naught. He’s not going to get that player, simply because of the logistics and dynamics of the draft. Even so, it’s important that you’re exceptionally thorough, and that the process is correct. That’s going to lead us to the correct decisions.
“How we go about evaluating our scouts is not about the players they got drafted. That’s out of their control. What we do is look back and see how they had their draft lists lined up.
“With the players we do get into our system, it’s easier to know them inside and out. We see them day to day, so we get a really good idea of whether our scout did his homework and knew the player’s background and makeup.
“When another team drafts a guy you were interested in, you can sometimes get information about him from friends you have in that organization. They may tell you things they learned about his makeup and background. I’ve used that at times. One of our scouts might have said, ‘This kid has excellent makeup,’ but another team drafts him and after the first summer we’re hearing, ‘This guy is real shaky.’ You use that type of information to help determine who your better scouts are. Do they go the extra mile to find out as much as they can about their players?
“That review process is helpful to the scouts as well. When they sit down for their yearly review, they know the feedback is going to be about more than just the players they had drafted.”
On Jed Lowrie, Jedd Gyorko, and scouting the mental game: “You need to see a player play a lot. On just one look, or just one weekend – especially if the guy didn’t perform for you — you can walk away saying ‘Gosh, I’m worried about this guy’s motor. He just doesn’t play with a lot of energy.’ You have to be careful about that. From multiple looks at Jed Lowrie over a couple of years – when I was in Boston — we could see he had the pulse of an assassin. He just never looked bothered or worried. It wasn’t a low-energy thing, he simply played under control and never got caught up in the moment.
“If you see Jed hit, you’ll notice that after he takes every pitch, he swipes the dirt in the box with his feet – he smooths it out. He’s done that ever since college. I don’t know if it’s something he does to calm himself down, but he did it as a sophomore at Stanford and he does it in the big leagues.
“With San Diego, right from the summer before we drafted Jedd Gyorko, when he was playing in the Cape Cod League, we could see he had big-time confidence. He had a presence at the plate and knew he was going to hit anybody. While Lowrie was ‘Okay, I’m going to take it like it comes’ – nothing was going to rattle him – Gyorko was ‘Alright, throw it in here, I’m going to ring it into a gap.’ His mentality was more aggressive than Lowrie’s. They had the same confidence, but the personalities surrounding that confidence were different.
“Physically, Lowrie had a more slender frame – not the wide, explosive frame – and Gyorko was a bulkier, thicker-framed guy who was playing shortstop in college. Of course, the thought was to move him to second base or to third base. He wasn’t the type of guy you’d look at right away when he got off the bus, but the confidence and the performance were both there. The body wasn’t prototypical, but it was apparent he could play.”
On high-risk-high-reward versus lower-ceiling safer picks: “You’re going to look at certain college players and know they’ll play in the big leagues. You don’t know for how long, or how great they’ll be, but you can see they’re going to get there. Others, especially younger guys, have a chance to make a lot more of an impact but are a lot riskier. That’s one of the biggest challenges.
“I think any scouting director will tell you his closet is littered with those types of skeletons. It was ‘I can’t pass on this toolsy high school upside guy? The risk is big – it’s huge – but how can I pass? If I do, people will say I was too conservative, that I was too scared to make that pick because of the potential downside.’
“One of my big skeletons came in Boston. We had a really good draft in 2005, but I continue to kick myself about one of the picks. We’d already taken a few guys – we had extra picks that year – and when we got to the second round, here was this high school player out of Georgia with big-time power. He was a potential catcher and he had huge power. His name was Jon Egan. Our pick came down to Egan or Chase Headley.
“Headley was a very steady college player who controlled the zone and got on base. I was like, ‘You know what? We already took Jed Lowrie and Jacoby Ellsbury.’ In a nutshell, what we did was go for the big upside. We took Jon Egan, who ended up not playing very long. Chase Headley became Chase Headley. I completely whiffed.
“A risk you run when you take a high school kid – especially a high school kid from a rural area – is that you don’t how they’re kind to react to a completely different environment. How are they going to mature? You have to weigh the high-school-maturity factor versus the college-experience factor.”
On drafting Kris Bryant second-overall last year: “Not only did we have him evaluated very highly with guys like Mark Appel and Jon Gray, and some of the high-upside projections like Kohl Stewart, college position players at the top of the draft have strong track records. We felt his power would play anywhere – it’s legitimate 40-home-run power — and his hit tool and makeup are really good. Kris had both the high upside and the track record, which made him the clear choice for us at that pick.”
On Cory Spangenberg and Javier Baez: “When I was in San Diego, Javier Baez went right in front of us. He went ninth and we took Cory Spangenberg tenth. The Cubs beat a lot of teams on Javy. They certainly beat the Padres. I have to admit we weren’t set up to take him with our pick. Thankfully, the Cubs were smart and I don’t have to wear that one too bad.
“After we signed Cory he went up to Eugene and just went bananas. Pat Murphy was our manager there. He had been the head coach at Arizona State — he and Dustin Pedroia are like father and son — and Murph was like ‘This guy is Pedroia, just from the left side and with more speed.’ Looking at what Cory did in the Northwest League, we were friggin’ digging ourselves. Then he went to Fort Wayne and has kind of been grinding along the last few years.”
“We had some questions on [Baez] aggressiveness. Everyone saw the bat speed and the power. He was a little flashy and had the big swing. What we probably underestimated a little bit was how much Javy loves to play the game, and how much he loves to compete. In the end, we simply missed on him. We wouldn’t have taken Javy had he fallen to our pick. Thankfully the Cubs did.”
On scouting a player’s commitment: “That’s one of the hardest things to scout, and it’s one area where your better scouts are going to beat the competition. They’re going to find out how important the game of baseball is to a player and how much he cares about it. You’ll see in the minors how some guys will start just going through the motions, partly because it can be easy to start doubting yourself. It’s mid-July and a guy starts dragging himself into the clubhouse at Double-A. He’s struggling while his buddies from college are making good at a law firm or an investment house. He’ll start thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’
“Beyond the really toolsy, talented guys, you also have the guys who, day in and day out, are grinding and continuing to challenge themselves to get the best out of their ability. Being a good teammate is also important to them. To me, those are the guys who love the game. They want to show up every day and work, and they look forward to the competition. It’s very important to find those guys. That said, not every potential major leaguer loves the game. Some guys are simply just better than everyone else. But those guys are few and far between.
“If the talent is similar – and even sometimes when it’s not – the guys who truly love to play are what you want. They’re going to get the most out of their ability. For an amateur scout, that’s a hard thing to get at. When one of our scouts beats other teams on a player, very often it’s on the makeup – how the guy is wired. Some area scouts have a way of really getting to know a player — as well the people the player is surrounded by – and those are the scouts who usually make hay.”
On comps: “All of us see a ton of games and players over the years. Whether it’s pro or amateur scouting, you’re writing hundreds of reports a year, and thousands over the course of your career. They can get monotonous to write. It’s probably not unlike if you’re writing a lot of columns – how am I going to switch this up and not write the same thing? Comps help tremendously, especially if it’s someone who jumps off the page for you. It happens a lot when you walk into a park. Maybe it’s the body type, and then you see that body type running and think, ‘Yeah, he moves like that guy, too.’ Maybe his swing or the way he throws are similar.
“If it’s an amateur guy, you’re usually just looking at body type, tools, maybe swing path and arm action. If you can comp him to someone – ideally a big-leaguer you saw as an amateur – it gives you comfort in that report. In pro scouting, you’re tying in performance, which gives you even more comfort.
“Comps can be used with makeup. A report might say, ‘This guy plays like Dustin Pedroia; every day he’s going to bring it.’ A scout in our organization who knows Anthony Rizzo might say ‘I think this guy has Rizzo makeup.’ That can be very helpful, but it’s imperative the scout really knows the player and isn’t just throwing out the comp.”
On development plans: “In many ways they’re similar, but each plan is tailored to the individual player. A lot has to do with their position, their body composition, the type of player we think they need to be – or can be – in the major leagues to be successful. For instance, Albert Almora is a centerfielder who is a little hit over power. His plan is going to be a little different than Kris Bryant’s. Kris is a third baseman and more power-based over hit. The fundamental part of their plans will be different.
“There’s also the mental skills component. All players are wired differently and have something different that makes them tick the way they do. That takes a little more time with the staff. We have a mental skills program that helps oversee that part. There’s the strength-and-conditioning part of the program, which goes back to body type and what kind of game they’re supposed to play. Are they tall and lanky or are they shorter? How much do they need their legs? A Dan Vogelbach is different from a guy who will be using his speed. A plan could be more nutrition-based or flexibility-based.
“We sit down with each player and go over this plan. It’s collaborative. It’s not simply, ‘Hey, this is what you need to do.’ It’s ‘Let’s discuss these things and build it together.’ We want a player to have some control over, and be accountable for, his development. It’s important to build communication between the organization and a player. If the day comes where you’re releasing a player, you never want him to walk away feeling like he didn’t know what was expected of him. It’s not dissimilar to the performance reviews you give your staff. You never want someone to not know why something happened.
“There can be benchmarks tied to promotions. Again, these things are tailored individually. There are certain things we’ll be looking for before a player moves up. A lot of them are built into those three areas: the physical, the fundamental, and the mental. This is a performance-based business as well. Not that they’re hard-line benchmarks, by any means, but the players have a pretty good idea of what they need to do to move up.”
On Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and development: “At this time last year, Kris wasn’t even a signed player yet. He’s already in Triple-A, so things are happening for him very quickly. With the player plans, we want guys to work on their weaknesses, but at the same times it can be as simple as, ‘Hey, go dominate a level and you’ll move.’ Kris certainly did that at Double-A. His timetable has sped up, but he’s worked very hard to get to where he is.
“Kris has elevated his game and it’s obviously showed up in the performance. He’s hitting for average, he’s hitting for power, he’s drawing his walks. At the same time, his strikeout rate is high. I think that’s going to be part of his game. But he’s a prideful hitter and is learning every day. That’s what’s been really impressive about him. Despite the performance, and despite the accolades, he shows up every day to work and learn. That’s on both sides of the ball. He believes in his ability to be a major league third baseman and works hard every day on his defense.
“Albert is facing adversity for the first time. He’s a guy who has hit everywhere, including Team USA. He started late last year and still rolled out of bed, so to speak, and did very well in the Midwest League. So far this year his batting average isn’t where he’d like it to be. There’s been a lot of discussion, and hard work, with him. He’s grinding through that first full season in the Florida State League, which is a tough place to hit. Don’t forget he’s a guy who would be a sophomore in college right now. His plan hasn’t changed.”
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.