WASHINGTON – Jason McLeod likes to call the draft his Super Bowl, but the Cubs executive who oversees scouting and player development thinks this could be the last time he picks this high for a long time.
“I (bleeping) hope so,” McLeod said with a laugh. “The approach doesn’t change, (but) hopefully we’re picking in the 20s – late 20s.”
That’s why the Cubs went into Sunday’s meetings in Chicago with Brady Aiken still on their board, not ruling out the 18-year-old lefty they ranked as the nation’s best amateur player in last year’s class.
That would be a high-risk, high-reward gamble with Aiken recovering from Tommy John surgery after getting drafted No. 1 overall and failing to reach an agreement with the Houston Astros.
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But the Cubs understand they have a unique opportunity with the No. 9 pick on Monday night, knowing they won’t have the same access to premium talent if the major-league team becomes competitive for the next several years.
McLeod grew up in San Diego – where Aiken starred at Cathedral Catholic High School – and used to work for the Padres. The Cubs are plugged into the baseball community there and feel like they have a strong relationship with the Aiken family. But everything hinges on the medicals.
Taking those injury concerns into account, the Theo Epstein administration has taken position players with their first pick in each of the last three drafts – outfielder Albert Almora (No. 6), third baseman Kris Bryant (No. 2) and catcher Kyle Schwarber (No. 4).
Two players who definitely fit that Cubs Way profile – Vanderbilt University shortstop Dansby Swanson and Louisiana State University shortstop Alex Bregman – won’t last until the ninth pick. University of Arkansas outfielder Andrew Benintendi is on the radar and could be there for the taking.
The Cubs have also analyzed two prep players who project as corner outfielders: Kyle Tucker (Plant High School/Tampa, Florida) and Trenton Clark (Richland High School/North Richland Hills, Texas).
“You look at the last three years, it just really lined up as we took what we thought was the best player available,” amateur scouting director Matt Dorey said. “It just happened to be a hitter. This is such a unique year because of the volatility with the injuries and we’re just picking later. Our pool had remained open longer throughout the scouting year for this pick.
“We’ve kept our peripheral open longer and we’ve had more players come into our mix. It was a really good opportunity to kind of keep our window open to listen to our scouts and not just laser focus in on one or two guys.”
If the Cubs try to make a below-slot deal ($3.351 million) and spread the money around in later rounds, University of Cincinnati outfielder/second baseman Ian Happ has been one name mentioned.
Daz Cameron – whose father Mike played 17 years in the big leagues – is committed to Florida State University and represented by super-agent Scott Boras. The 18-year-old outfielder might be a difficult sign for the Cubs compared to a team like the Astros, who have two top-five picks and more than $17 million in their bonus pool after whiffing on Aiken.
“It’s dangerous ground to try to play the draft outside of just really evaluating and lining up the best player and eliminating all the other variables,” Dorey said. “In terms of the sign-ability, all that stuff should not come into play when you go out and scout and line up your main board. That’s really our philosophy, and as it’s worked out the last few years, it just happened to be a hitter.”
The Cubs are running through the scenarios, anticipating three top pitchers to be gone by the time they select: University of Illinois closer Tyler Jay; Vanderbilt right-hander Carson Fulmer; and UC-Santa Barbara right-hander Dillon Tate.
If the Cubs ultimately decide to go in that direction, Missouri State University right-hander Jon Harris would be an option.
“It’s really, truly going to be the best player available,” Dorey said, “especially in this type of draft where there hasn’t been anybody that really separated themselves early and held that status all the way through the year as the true ‘1-1.’ There’s been literally multiple guys that everybody has predicted will go in that pick.
“We can make educated guesses about what other teams are doing ahead of us, but we’re so at the mercy of what happens before us. We’re just going to be prepared for a lot of guys. And then when it gets down to our pick, be in a really good position to take the best guy for the Chicago Cubs.”