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How Cubs’ scouting and player-development departments are making up for lost time after unpredictable 2020

After losing an entire minor-league season to the pandemic, the Cubs’ amateur scouting and player-development departments are adjusting to get the most out of the next wave of prospects.

Chicago Cubs v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Cubs’ moves this offseason have shown a significant shift in focus from the present to the future. That shift puts a spotlight on their scouting and player-development infrastructure, which has been revamped in the last few years.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, forced the Cubs’ scouting and player-development departments to regroup and adjust while Major League Baseball made significant changes to combat the virus.

The cancellation of the 2020 minor-league season and the reduction of the 2020 MLB Draft to five rounds were two byproducts of those changes, leaving those departments to fend for themselves in the new normal.

With a shock to that infrastructure, front offices around the game have been looking for answers to continue to find and develop the next wave of major-league talent — and to do it safely — in a COVID world.

Teams around the game also saw major layoffs in their baseball-operations departments, and the Cubs were no exception. That only has added to the challenges.

‘‘I think ‘efficiency’ has been a word that we’ve talked about a lot,’’ Cubs vice president of player development Matt Dorey said. ‘‘I think we’re always striving to be more efficient and create better opportunities for our players, streamline how we deliver information. But now we’re doing that with fewer boots on the ground. It’s gonna be a challenge, for sure.

‘‘You need to strip away what it looked like before. This is a completely new challenge. And we need to think of new ideas and systems in which we can still deliver the same level of coaching to our players but with less people. And I feel like we have a good plan.’’

How do you scout the next great high school or college prospect with skewed production because of a strange 2020? How can a player develop his game with no in-person interaction?

During the last 10 months, the Cubs’ scouting and player-development departments have been working to answer those questions.

From a macro level, amateur scouting across baseball probably took the biggest hit in 2020. The inability to see players, as in previous years, combined with the layoff of scouts made scouting a much more difficult task.

Players such as Ed Howard, the Cubs’ 2020 first-round pick, and other projected first-rounders were easier to scout than most last year. Other players only could be seen through the limited video teams had.

Scouting isn’t a perfect science, but trying to determine whether a player you saw in 2020 will be the same player in 2021 after a long layoff and not playing any games adds a level of uncertainty.

But with the 2021 MLB Draft being pushed back to July and high school and college talent scheduled to play their seasons, the Cubs are hoping their draft plans get back to normal.

‘‘I think our hope, internally, is that scouting in 2021 starts to look a little bit more like what we’re accustomed to seeing,’’ senior vice president of scouting Dan Kantrovitz said. ‘‘I think we’re hopeful that we get to go out and see more college and high school games than we were able to this past year.

‘‘Video is gonna be a huge part of our preparation leading up to the point when we can safely get out and start scouting players again. I think our expectation is that we’re gonna be able to get out there with ample time prior to the draft. It’s not going to be like prior years, and I think there’s going to be things that will be a little different. But our hope is that we’re able to get out there.’’

Player development also has had to make big adjustments. With minor-leaguers unable to work with the team’s instructors, coaches and staff, as they would in a normal season, the Cubs have leaned on technology to help bridge the gap.

‘‘I think we’ve been more aggressive in trying to develop stuff,’’ assistant general manager Craig Breslow said. ‘‘And I think we’ve utilized more tools. I think we have a very curious group of coaches that have tried to individualize programs for our players. And I think our players have responded really positively to that.’’

Like most people during the pandemic, Cubs players have been on plenty of Zoom meetings in the last 10 months. But they also can stay in contact with the team’s ‘‘Ivy’’ app. The app allows players, instructors and staff to communicate and upload video, make coaching suggestions and create specialized programs for players.

Breslow, who was one of the driving forces behind the app, saw an opportunity for the organization to be aggressive. And as industry fixtures such as Driveline have become more efficient in terms of remote development, the opportunity was there for the Cubs to do the same. The effort also continues the team’s plans to modernize its player-development infrastructure.

‘‘I think it would be impossible to underscore the value of the app through this period,’’ Breslow said. ‘‘When I came into the organization, I thought about this idea of a player portal that would kind of be an outpost of Ivy, something that could interface with players, some of our [research-and-development] staff and our baseball-ops department.

‘‘We thought about it, and we mocked up kind of what this could look like, what the functionality would be. Then, through some luck, the timing was perfect in that it was able to be rolled out at the same time. Unfortunately, the pandemic struck, and things were turned upside down. But I think it kind of uniquely positioned us to find ways to push development in a world where that would have otherwise been really, really difficult.’’

Unless they took part in a winter league, such as catching prospect Miguel Amaya did in Puerto Rico, many of the Cubs’ minor-leaguers will have gone more than a year since playing a game.

Other prospects, such as pitchers Adbert Alzolay and Brailyn Marquez and outfielder Brennen Davis, were able to train at the Cubs’ alternate site last year in South Bend, Indiana, which might have been better for their development than the minor-league affiliate they might have played at. Alzolay, for example credits the development of his slider to the instructors at the alternate site.

Assessing where players are in their development will be critical this spring as the Cubs’ player-development staff determines at what level they will begin the season.

‘‘The new kind of rollout of our player-development infrastructure is really focused on trying to be more objective [in player placement],’’ Dorey said. ‘‘You always say guys need to beat the level before they go up, but that didn’t always happen. Sometimes there’s just need. Sometimes guys beat a level, but they’re just more athletic. They’re just better, and that’s not necessarily the reason why they should go up.

‘‘So what we’ve done is, we really tried to lay out a very specific, objective, data-driven approach to certain [key performance indicators] that we feel are the best indicators to have major-league success for that level. We have our own set of performance indicators and benchmarks that players need to hit.

‘‘And it’s not just on the field. There are some other things that we value, [and] our players know what those are. They’re working toward those goals right now, remotely, and so we’ve laid those out to them. So when they come into camp, they need to show that they’ve made progress and hit those benchmarks. [Because] when we decide to start building out rosters, the worst thing you could do for any prospect is send them back and put them in a position to fail.’’

It might take years to determine the long-term ramifications of the pandemic on scouting and player development, but the Cubs hope what they’ve done in the last 10 months will keep them ahead of the game and ensure the next wave of prospects has the best chance to succeed.

‘‘We don’t know [the long-term effects of last year on development],’’ Dorey said. ‘‘We’ll only be told by how the players come back. The barometer for our success is their success. And so until we see that, it’ll be tough to answer that.

‘‘I do think we have seen the shutdown or new environment that we’ve been living in provide a lot of opportunity for us, especially with so many new faces in development in new jobs. I think if we would have had a normal 2020, we would have gotten into [everything] really quick. . . . I think this shutdown has given us this unique opportunity to really look at everything we were planning on doing and ask really tough questions about, ‘Is that really the right approach?’ ’’