Bernstein: Cubs' Front Office Trying To Keep Up

The Cubs understand they're lagging behind in drafting and player development.

Dan Bernstein
September 12, 2019 - 1:22 pm
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(670 The Score) Their way worked, and that's just a plain fact. Theo Epstein took the reins of the Cubs, described what he was going to do and then went and did it. He brought the baseball operations from the stone age into modernity, got bad to get good, drafted position players and bought pitching and won the World Series.

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And it seems like forever ago, especially in a sport that's now barely recognizable compared to what it was even a couple years prior, let alone when Epstein arrived in October 2011.

In one of the first moves in what Epstein foreshadowed as a "reckoning" after three seasons of underachievement, he moved Jason McLeod from his position as head of amateur scouting to a title at the same level as head of player personnel. Epstein called it a "lateral move," and it's clear that it was made to put a new set of eyes on drafting and development.

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It had been only a short period of time, but the Cubs are no longer on the forefront of either of those areas, having been outstripped by at least the Astros and Dodgers and perhaps other counterparts ahead of or closer to the curve regarding the image-aided engineering of pitches and swings, pitchers and hitters. So much about what we thought we knew has been changed, with the very concept of talent itself now a subject of discussion as some major league skills are being discovered in unexpected ways and places, at times seemingly built from scratch.

McLeod was one of the made guys, going back with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer to their shared days in Boston. It's significant that he's being told to cede his responsibilities to somebody else.

And to be fair, the reasons for the Cubs system's steady slide down the prospect power rankings are multiple and understandable. Their high picks that were the payoff for the pain of so many losses were turned into fast-tracked contributors: They quickly graduated up and out of the minors, even if there has been some disappointingly uneven evolution after that. There were numerous trades of talented assets as the focus has been on maximizing wins by bolstering the big league roster as necessitated throughout the competitive years, and their draft position reflected their dramatically increased win totals. New rules for international signings also took away some loopholes that were allowing deeper-pocketed organizations to game that apparatus too.

But the Cubs know that their next great team will have to be put together differently. The construction of pitching staffs now means moving away from traditional starters and relief roles, incorporating new flexibility. Catchers must be able to steal strikes from the umpires as long as they continue to be asked to judge them. Hitters have to balance the ability to launch this slippery version of the baseball over the wall with the skill of not chasing pitches out of the strike zone.

"The player development landscape is changing more rapidly than it ever has, as long as I've been in the game," Epstein said on the Mully and Haugh Show on 670 The Score on Thursday. "It's a generation of technology or MOs turning over sort of every six months to a year these days. So it's important to continue to modernize and fully embracing that. If you just keep the same exact structures and the same exact relationships and the same exact systems that you're had for eight years, it's impossible to modernize even if you think you are. So getting a fresh look, certainly looking at some people outside the organization as well, some really strong internal candidates that we have just to adjust our leadership structure to reflect the values and modernization inside a rapidly changing game."​

If that sounds like it means that the McLeod move is just the first -- an obvious bellwether of more to come across the board for the entire scouting and development operation -- that's because it does.

Part of Epstein's leadership playbook is always challenging himself and others to figure out what they don't know. And as it turns out, there has been plenty.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight Show in midday. You can follow him on Twitter @Dan_Bernstein.