MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Matt Dorey, the Cubs’ farm director, is nearing the end of a long, grueling journey as he watches the Cubs’ low-A affiliate take batting practice from the seats behind the home dugout in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
That grueling journey has nothing to do with that flight from his home airport in Portland, Oregon, to get there. Or how long he’s been on the road. In fact, this is only his second full day in town.
It’s about what Double-A manager Mark Johnson said a day or two earlier: that he couldn’t imagine a tougher, more stressful job in baseball this year than Dorey’s — from unprecedented injuries at all levels of the organization coming off last year’s canceled minor-league season to COVID-19 issues that included a recent outbreak and weeklong shutdown for what might have been the most vaccinated team in the system.
When Dorey hears what Johnson said, his heavy brow eases just long enough for a quick laugh.
“I don’t know how many different transactions we’ve had, but I’m pretty sure we lead the league,” says Dorey, who’s in his second season as farm director after a six-year run as scouting director.
“I look back at it now, and at the time we were all swimming, just trying to fill teams at times, honestly, with as many injuries as we had,” he says. “I think we expected some of it with guys having a full year layoff.”
But, he’s quick to add, “It’s across the industry.”
As all eyes turn to Dorey’s operation and how quickly he can offer impact talent to Cubs president Jed Hoyer’s not-a-rebuild process, he has at least checked one major box on the list of making that happen.
“My No. 1 goal was just to get the year completed and give these players an opportunity to re-establish themselves,” he says. “And we accomplished that. My No. 1 objective has been a success. So I’m really happy about that.
“It was worth all the struggles to get here, just to make sure these guys have an opportunity to continue their careers, continue to develop and move hopefully to the next level, that much closer to the big leagues.”
That was no small feat for any organization this season, coming off the wiped-out 2020 minor-league season, minor-league contraction, the ongoing threat of the pandemic and the myriad soft-tissue injuries everybody in the game anticipated after a year of no games.
“I think we expected some of it,” Dorey said, “but a lot of it was just bad luck and fluke. And there’s other things that we probably need to re-evaluate just in terms of how we’re building guys up and balancing making sure that they’re in baseball shape.”
Pre-vaccine precautions early in the year meant scuttling the annual “mini camp” the Cubs hold for selected groups of prospects for conditioning just ahead of spring training, and minor-league spring trainings were backed up to keep distancing at the Mesa, Arizona, complex manageable.
It’s impossible to know how much that had to do with any of the Cubs’ minor-league injuries this year, but Dorey expects a more normal schedule heading into next year, including a return of the mini-camp, even as officials brace for continuing safety measures during the ongoing pandemic.
Johnson’s not the only one in the organization who shakes his head at what it took to get through this unprecedented minor-league season.
“Both last season with the alt site and this year with a delayed spring training and all of the issues COVID presented minor-league baseball, Matt has handled every challenge with great leadership and remarkable humanity,” Hoyer says.
With measurable progress along the way for several high-profile prospects, including top-prospect Brennen Davis — the Futures Game MVP who jumped two levels, despite an early-season injury, to finish at Triple-A Iowa.
“It’s hard to imagine anyone handling a delicate and exhausting situation better than Matt has these past 18 months,” Hoyer said.
Despite exceeding 85-percent vaccination thresholds with three of the four minor-league teams (excluding Iowa), the Cubs had a late-August outbreak involving mostly vaccinated players with Johnson’s Smokies that caused a weeklong cancelation of games.
Other affiliates had individual cases during the season, including three of 2020 first-round pick Ed Howard’s five roommates at Myrtle Beach being sent home late in the season after positive tests.
“It just proves how serious this Delta variant is, and even though we did have really strong vaccination rates we had several breakthrough cases,” Dorey says. “Luckily, we didn’t have anybody get really sick. But we definitely had guys feel the effects.
“If nothing else, it was a great reminder of how fragile the season is right now and was.”
Despite failing to reach vaccination goals with Iowa players, Dorey says he’s “really proud” of the organization’s education efforts and the decisions made by the vast majority of players in the system.
“They took the initiatives in spring training to get vaccinated, and we had 85-percent across three of our affiliates, and for the most part we stayed safe, even though we did miss some games,” he says.
In fact, despite the Triple-A shortcomings with vaccines, Iowa has not had a team outbreak as it enters the final week of its season.
Dorey says what the organization has learned across the board during this “really weird” minor-league season will be applied to next season, not the least of which will be the COVID experience.
“If anything, I think we learned a pretty good blueprint for what works and where the soft spots are,” he says of an effort this year that primarily involved following CDC and MLB guidelines.
“And by just over-communicating and educating our players,” he adds, “and letting them know that you don’t ever get these development opportunities back. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.
“It’s tragic when we lose a season in 2020, and any other games above that —those are windows of opportunity. And their careers are short, and they’re narrow,” he says. “It’s out job to try to maximize those. And COVID is just another roadblock we have to try to navigate. It really comes down to vaccinations and personal behavior.”
Maybe it’ll get better in 2022. What’s certain is that Dorey won’t soon forget 2021.
“It’s been challenging for sure,” he says, “But I do think it’s been pretty rewarding at the same time. Everybody in the industry’s going through it. I think it’s galvanized clubhouses. These clubhouses have pulled together because of it, in healthy times and when we’ve had some scares. I know that they care about one another.
“And developmentally you’re always trying to accomplish that anyway.”