The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything about the way the Cubs approached the trade deadline, from evaluations based on small sample sizes to the risks of the virus ending an already short season abruptly, to limits on adding payroll at a time of steep financial losses.
But that’s barely the beginning of how the business of baseball has and will change during the pandemic, with much wider ripples yet to be felt by the Cubs and other teams.
A significant example was seen in the week leading up to Monday’s deadline, when the Cubs informed seven pro scouts and advisors in that department that their contracts will not be renewed after this year.
That included long-renowned pitching guru Jim Benedict, whose hiring after the 2017 season was heralded by the Cubs and noted throughout baseball’s inner circles, where he was known as “the pitcher whisperer.”
“He’s someone we’ve followed closely for a while,” team president Theo Epstein said then of Benedict’s hiring, adding the former Marlins and long-time Pirates pitching coordinator and special assistant has “a tremendous and well-earned reputation for being a pitching expert.”
The Cubs’ failure to develop homegrown pitching under Epstein has been an Achilles heel for the organization, and Benedict was to be part of the solution.
Sources say Benedict, respected special assignment scout and advisor David Howard, along with scouts Dave Klipstein, Spike Lundberg, Nic Jackson, Mark Kiefer and Joe Nelson were cut from the 27-man roster of pro scouts, along with about two dozen others in player development — part of company-wide cuts across an organization that had significantly grown its baseball operations department in nine years under Epstein.
“That was a terrible day for us,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Monday. “We spent the whole summer waiting for some good news, from a revenue standpoint; obviously, you’re hoping to get some fans in the stands and hoping to get some clarity on revenues for ’21 and was something we were talking about throughout the summer, wanting to hold off and wanting to get good news, because the staff we’ve built over nine years and the people that work here have contributed to a lot of winning and been here for a long time.
“It was a day we never imagined and never wanted to happen, and, unfortunately, that’s the reality of our situation.”
It’s a reality shared across the American professional sports industry. Even the revenue-leading Yankees made a similar decision on staffing cuts.
What it means ultimately for operations and processes is unclear even for many of those who will remain after this year with a Cubs’ organization that has made large investments — like others in the game — into high-tech equipment and tech-savvy instructors on the player-development side.
Coaching and player development staffs throughout MLB already were to be downsized through a reduction in minor-league teams next year. But the impact of these kinds of additional pandemic-related cuts to teams that have poured financial and intellectual resources into those areas are harder to predict.
“It’s not something that we’re going to recover from, or recover from easily,” Hoyer said of the staffing cuts. “Some people are going to have to wear multiple hats, and people will have to pick up the slack from a lot of really good employees that we’re not able to bring back.
“There’s no question that I don’t think we’re alone in knowing we’re going to have to operate differently for the foreseeable future.”