CHICAGO -- As Jason McLeod said with a smile at Tuesday afternoon's press conference at Wrigley Field, the past few weeks have pretty much been Theo-mania in Chicago. McLeod, the new director of scouting and player development for the Cubs, is accurate that this city has been heaping praise on Theo Epstein for a while, but that didn't stop Epstein from doing the same for McLeod.
"Jason McLeod is the rarest commodity in the industry," Epstein said. "He's an impact evaluator of baseball talent."
Both Epstein and new general manager Jed Hoyer have been clear in saying that engineering a strong base to this organization is the imperative for sustained success on the North Side. And the key to that process just may be McLeod.
"The three of us believe in the same things," Hoyer said. "That's going to be the key to this whole operation, building that scouting and player development machine."
McLeod spearheaded two excellent drafts during his tenure as assistant general manager with the San Diego Padres. Those drafts helped contribute to turning a minor league system that was one of the worst in baseball to one most view as no worse than top 10 in the league.
Hoyer emphasized that the greatest part of this job for him is watching players who they drafted and develop make their debut at the big league level and eventually get a taste of real success. McLeod added that watching the Red Sox clinch the World Series in 2007 in a game that saw seven players he had a hand in drafting contribute, was the pinnacle of his career to this point.
McLeod's list of draft successes in Boston is long; it includes former MVP Dustin Pedroia and 2011 MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury; Daniel Bard, who is one of the top setup men in the game and a potential replacement for closer Jonathan Papelbon if he departs via free agency. The list also includes starter Clay Buchholz, who battled injuries this past season, but had an all-star season in 2010, when he posted a 2.33 ERA and finished sixth in Cy Young voting.
McLeod said Buchholz was a touchy topic at one point between he and Epstein. Epstein liked him, but wasn't convinced that he was over some off-field issues, while McLeod felt otherwise. The two apparently had an ‘epic' fight, ending with Epstein throwing something at their draft board and storming out of the room.
While Epstein and McLeod are clearly very close friends, part of Epstein's strength is that he's always challenging those around him, making sure that the process they're using to get to their conclusions are sound. Of course things eventually calmed down and McLeod got his man, as the Red Sox took Buchholz with the 42nd pick in the 2005 draft.
It's the bond between McLeod, Hoyer and Epstein that's important, but also that building of trust with those who surround them, especially their scouts, that is so integral to the draft process. When McLeod went to see Ellsbury, he saw a speedy little guy with no power who was continually getting beat by the opposing pitcher. Red Sox scouts saw a different story and insisted that they select Ellsbury. While McLeod was confident in his scouts' abilities, before relenting he grilled them as to why they believed Ellsbury was the right player to pick in that spot. After hearing the right answers, McLeod went against what he saw and stuck with the men he'd surrounded himself with.
"[After the draft], we bring [Ellsbury] to Fenway, work him out, and he's way stronger," McLeod said. "He's everything our scouts saw, I just never saw it."
Of course there are times when nobody really sees the true potential in a player. The Red Sox drafted Pedroia thinking his ceiling was a Jody Reed type player, but they rationalized the choice by saying someone that can stick around in the big leagues for a decade, like Reed, was worthy of the 65th pick in the draft.
But those are the rare occurrences, as McLeod pointed out, the organization doesn't give a player the tools, he has them and it's the organization's job to harness the talent.
"You can take the fringe player and make him better," McLeod said. "The Dustin Pedroias of the world those are just outliers, we never knew he was going to be that good, ever.
"It starts on the evaluation. Draft day and the international signing day, I may be biased, but those are the two most important days of the year for an organization, because those are the days you choose who you're bringing into the organization. Everything starts with the player that you sign, the player you draft. Of course player development is in place to help that kid get the most of his ability, but there's only so much a player can or can't do."
While every other major sport's draft is in the offseason, the baseball draft is in June, smack in the middle of the MLB season as well as the college and high school seasons. Other leagues have a combine or one-on-one workouts and interviews to help them evaluate draft talent, but that part of the process doesn't exist in baseball. Baseball evaluators can view the player's physical abilities on the field, but any medical, mental, and social issues can often go overlooked. It's why McLeod believes it's the toughest draft of any sport, a virtual crap shoot.
Knowing that, it's a certainty that there will be numerous failures along the way. One such miss was in 2006, when the Red Sox had back to back picks in the first round, selecting Bard with the second of those picks. The first one, however, didn't go over nearly as well. Selecting Jason Place -- a toolsy, strong, outfielder with a slight mechanical issue with his swing -- with that pick was a decision that still eats at McLeod.
"Mentally he couldn't handle failure and he was never able to correct those mechanical flaws," McLeod said. "That's a first-round pick that because of the success we've had you don't hear much about. But believe me, as a scouting director as a staff, you stay up at night saying, ‘What was the process, why did this happen?'"
While Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod will be the new faces at Wrigley, implementing their ‘Cubs Way', there will be a few holdovers from the previous regime. Chief among them, as far as McLeod is concerned, are vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita and scouting director Tim Wilken. Fleita likely will have a large hand in what happens as far as the Cubs' presence in Latin America goes, but just by looking at his title, it would seem that Wilken's role may be a tad superfluous with McLeod's arrival.
However, Epstein's desire to build a large, strong front office by keeping the best and the brightest a part of this organization makes the assumption that Wilken won't be needed premature. McLeod said it was too early to define what the exact structure of the scouting department would be, but it would hardly be a leap to say that McLeod would be the man in charge on draft day, a task previously held by Wilken.
Though he's never worked directly with him, McLeod has nothing but verbal bouquets for Wilken, saying he's someone who has impacted the way McLeod runs a draft room and evaluates talent. McLeod was glad to see the Cubs aggressive approach last summer in the draft, as they selected numerous players who were widely known to be over-slot, hard signs. He added that their current system was lacking in impact stars but had some depth, putting them in the middle of the pack among other major league systems.
Of course, that's McLeod's impression from the outside looking in; he's yet to sit down with Fleita and Wilken, read the internal reports and really figure out where improvements can be made.
"It's important to note that we're not going to come in here and reinvent the wheel," McLeod said. "We have certain systems and processes that we believe in, in terms of how to reach a player and how to effectively get the most out of that player."
"The goal is not going to change, we're still going to look to draft the best players and sign the best players internationally. We're just going to sit down and see what is the best way to go about doing it."
As McLeod says, it's all about the information. The goal is to pull as much information about a player, whether it be scouting reports or statistics, and thus make the most informed decision. It's a simple plan, however it's the execution that's been lacking in the past with the Cubs. With Hoyer and Epstein in tow and McLeod as their secret weapon, the ends may not always be perfect, but the means will undoubtedly be sound.