Cubs used team approach to draft Bryant
Many within the organization contributed to slugger going No. 2 overall in 2013
CHICAGO -- Should Kris Bryant have been on the Opening Day roster? Or did the Cubs do the right thing by delaying his arrival, putting him in their uniform for an extra season through patience alone? Those questions have resounded around baseball for the last few weeks.
But how about this one? How great of a decision did Theo Epstein's scouting staff make when it went against conventional wisdom to draft Bryant in 2013?
Everyone expected the Cubs to take one of the two best college pitchers available with the second overall pick. But senior vice president of player development and amateur scouting Jason McLeod defied the mock drafts by taking the University of San Diego third baseman.
Bryant, the No. 2-ranked prospect in baseball who could begin his big league odyssey as early as Friday, projects as the homegrown perennial All-Star to lead Joe Maddon's team toward the World Series. Sure, a lot can still go wrong, it always can, but let's celebrate how Bryant came to be a Cub.
Throughout the process, conventional wisdom ranked Bryant behind Stanford's Mark Appel and Oklahoma's Jonathan Gray, and at one point it wasn't clear if he would go ahead of North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran or the two top high school hitters, Clint Frazier and Austin Meadows.
Locking in on Bryant was perhaps the biggest of a series of very smart, incredibly well-researched decisions that have changed the outlook for a franchise that hasn't won a World Series since 1908.
McLeod admits that there were major questions about Bryant's "hit tool" when the organization held its January meetings. And because of that, Bryant was "on the outside looking in" in regards to the Cubs' highest Draft pick since they took Mark Prior second overall in 2001.
McLeod, a San Diego native, has known USD coach Rich Hill forever, and Hill did everything he could to sell Bryant's potential.
"Rich Hill's going to shoot straight with me," McLeod said. "He couldn't speak more highly of a player and a person you would potentially bring into an organization, in terms of a teammate, the work ethic, all of those things."
But Bryant had left some scouts with questions when he hit .223 for the Chatham Anglers in the Cape Cod League in 2011, after his freshman year at USD. Scouts loved his raw power and athleticism, but they worried about his high strikeout totals.
Those questions were gradually answered throughout a junior season in which Bryant hit .329 with an NCAA-leading 31 home runs in 62 games -- a really big number given how the college bat has been toned down through the years -- and had 50 percent more walks than strikeouts (66-44). When general manager Jed Hoyer and McLeod met with Bryant during the West Coast Conference tournament in Stockton, Calif., in late May, they began to think that they might really select Bryant ahead of Appel and Gray.
"He was so impressive," McLeod said. "He came down by himself and sat down for about 45 minutes. By that point, we'd already met with Jon Gray and Mark Appel. We felt like Kris, of the three, was just someone who was probably the most equipped to step into this type of market and to handle the expectations of being the No. 2 overall pick. When we combined all those things, with the evaluation of the player, certainly our [opinion] was higher than it was in January, during those Draft meetings."
McLeod recalls the conversations he had with cross-checker Sam Hughes as a turning point in steering the Cubs toward Bryant. The Atlanta-based scout traveled to watch the San Diego Toreros in a weekend tournament at North Carolina-Wilmington in early March, and Hughes saw Bryant go 6-for-12 with two home runs, two doubles, three walks and only one strikeout while moving between center field and third base.
"Sammy really pounded the table after he saw [Bryant]," McLeod said. "He said, 'This guy really needs to be on our radar screen.' We kept running back in [to see Bryant] … and he just exploded that year."
Hughes, the son of Red Sox special assistant Gary Hughes, said Bryant had been only "vaguely" under consideration for the second pick at the start of the season. To the degree that the Cubs had a list, they had him even with or below the top high school hitters, Frazier and Meadows.
Hughes went to see Frazier and Meadows right after he had seen Bryant.
"I saw those kids on back-to-back days," Hughes said. "That's where it started getting clear to me. I'm supposed to like these two high school hitters better than Kris, and I don't -- by a long shot. "
Hughes says that while McLeod credits him for elevating Bryant's stock, it took a group effort for Bryant to be evaluated. Alex Lontoya, the Cubs' area scout in Southern California, had done lots of legwork before Hughes and the others, including then-scouting director [and current farm director] Jaron Madison, began to converge on the Toreros' games. Hughes was in San Diego for Bryant's three-homer game against BYU in mid-March.
There was extreme intrigue entering Draft night. The Astros had the first pick, followed by the Cubs and the Rockies. Everyone expected Appel, Bryant and Gray to be the top three picks, but there was little consensus on how they would fall.
All of the prominent mock drafts, including MLB.com Jonathan Mayo's, had the Cubs taking whichever college arm the Astros did not take -- Appel or Gray -- with Bryant falling to the Rockies. There had been few leaks from within the Draft rooms of the Astros and the Cubs, so teams were forced to guess.
The Cubs were in regular contact with the representatives of all three college stars throughout Draft day. At one point, the Rockies thought that Bryant would fall to them, because Epstein appeared to be having late talks with Gray's representatives.
But in the end, the Cubs decided they couldn't pass on Bryant, because of their belief that pitching has become easier to find than impact bats.
"I'd rather go with the volume approach in terms of pitching," McLeod said. "History tells us pitching comes from all different parts of the Draft."
McLeod said the Cubs were worried the Astros might take Bryant.
"We had no idea what they doing," McLeod said. "We had to be prepared for all different outcomes. … Until we heard Mark Appel's name called [by the Astros], we didn't know. We knew we were prepared and ready with our process, and felt good about the player we were going to get, and we were thrilled it was Kris Bryant."
Some people claim the Cubs would have taken Appel if the Astros had selected Gray, leaving both Bryant and Appel on the board. McLeod said it's not true, that Appel was a consideration at No. 2 only if Bryant had been off the board.
But Hughes remembers McLeod, Epstein, Hoyer and Madison sweating out the choice of Bryant over Gray for as long as they were allowed.
"We debated and hashed out those three guys," Hughes said. "We were in Chicago for 10 days, 11 days prior to the Draft. We spent a lot of time [debating it] during that entire 11 days, right up until MLB said they needed our pick. It went right up to the last second."
Fast forward a little bit and time's almost up on wondering how good Bryant will be.
The unveiling draws near.