Every star in baseball today was “discovered” in one way or another at the beginning of their big league career. We are spoiled as fans because we get to enjoy the end product but few people realize the amount of time and work that went into evaluating these current stars when they were just another kid playing the game of baseball.
That got me thinking…
Was Kris Bryant always a sure thing to make it to the league? Did Javier Baez have that same flash when he was in single A ball? What characteristics do the Cubs look for in young players? Who is the next big thing in baseball and please tell me he’s in the Cubs farm system?
I wanted to get a better idea of how players are discovered, evaluated, developed, and how their paths to the big leagues differ, so I decided to give my friend (and Chicago Cubs area scout supervisor), Alex Lontayo, a phone call.
“I’ve Been Around Baseball My Entire Life.”
Alex Lontayo was born in December of 1975 in Colorado but moved to San Diego before his second birthday. Growing up in a military household, his parents always stressed academics over athletics but that didn’t stop the game of baseball from making it’s way into the Lontayo household. His father and his uncles played baseball which paved the way for Alex to become a pretty good baseball player in his own right.
He was a four-year starter on the baseball team at Castle Park high school and a three-year participant in the prestigious Area Code games based out of Long Beach, California. His two-way skill led him to a full ride scholarship at Tulane University where from 1995-1998 where he went 19-14 with a 3.87 ERA. He knew his stuff wasn’t electric but refused to get outworked by anyone, a trait that he said became very important to him as a future scout.
“At an early age, I learned I could only control my effort and attitude. If I worked harder than others, I could give myself the best chance at playing this game at a higher level.”
When his collegiate career came to a close, Lontayo wasn’t sure what his next move would be. His best friend, Alex Pelaez, had just been drafted by the Padres and Lontayo was coming off a torn ACL at the beginning of the 1998 season.
He attempted to play through it, but ultimately decided to have the surgery halfway through his senior season. After graduating with his degree in May, he moved to Salt Lake City, Utah to do his ACL rehab and move on with life after baseball. After the New York Yankees won the World Series, his best friend’s agent called him to see if he was healthy and looking to play baseball. Alex couldn’t believe that there was still interest and before he knew it, he was packed up and heading back to San Diego to get into baseball shape.
After a couple free agent workouts, the Boston Red Sox took a shot on him and offered him a free agent contract in 1999. He ultimately made the A ball Augusta team out of Spring Training and for the next seven years, Lontayo bounced around the minor leagues making it all the way to AAA but never to the show.
After walking away from the game in 2005, Alex got away from baseball to concentrate on his post-baseball career and to just settle his mind on the fact that baseball wasn’t in his future — or so he thought.
In 2011, Lontayo was asked to help coach at a baseball facility being opened by Adrian and Edgar Gonzalez in San Diego. Through that, he was offered a chance to be the pitching coach at a local high school and the baseball fire in him was re-lit. He reconnected with his old catcher, Josh Emmerick, from their time with the Washington Nationals. Emmerick also just happened to land the area scout job for the San Diego Padres.
Emmerick asked Lontayo to join him in coaching the San Diego Padres scout ball team in the summer of 2011. That’s when the phone call came that would change the course of his plans and led him to where he’s at today.
“I got a phone call from Josh and he said he had just spoke with Jaron Madison, who was the Padres scouting director, and said that he, Jason McCleod (ex San Diego Padres assistant GM), and Jed Hoyer (ex San Diego Padres General Manager) were all heading to Chicago to work for the Cubs. They were going to open up Southern California for the Cubs and wanted to know if Josh had anyone in mind that he could recommend.”
Over the next week, Lontayo conducted interviews with different members of the Cubs staff and then got another life altering phone call. On the other line was Jaron Madison, the Cubs new scouting director. He offered Lontayo a job as an amateur scout with the organization.
Being that Lontayo’s roots to the West Coast were so strong, it only made sense to have him focus on that area. He currently splits an area in Southern California, from the San Diego border to Long Beach and everything east to Arizona and Nevada, with another scout.
If you know anything about baseball, that area is a hotbed for talent. Several recent #1 overall picks (Brady Aiken, Mickey Moniak, and Royce Lewis) have all come from the area the Lontayo now oversees.
In addition to those former #1 picks, another name may ring a bell.
“The Kid Can Flat Out Play Baseball”
In 2012, the outgoing area scout for the Cubs handed Lontayo a list of 20-30 prospects that fell within his area and one name on that list, Kris Bryant, stood out. In 2012-2013, Bryant was a junior at University of San Diego and every baseball person in America knew who Bryant was.
Lontayo wanted to see Bryant in person so he made an appearance at one of Bryant’s college games. Part of being a scout means watching batting practice and observing how the player preps his body is just as important as overall performance.
I asked Lontayo about Bryant’s overall performance that day in batting practice and he simply laughed,
“Out of about 40 hacks, I’d say 37 of them left the yard.”
We all know Bryant can rake but what impressed Lontayo the most about him was just how even keeled he was. He shared another story about a game that Bryant and USD were facing off against San Diego State University in 2013. In that game, Bryant got absolutely blown away all game by SDSU’s big time pitcher, Michael Cederoth.
After the game, Lontayo texted Bryant and was shocked that there was no panic is in response. He told Lontayo that he needed “about 35 at-bats” to get into a rhythm that season and sure enough, after about 40 at-bats, Bryant went on an absolute tare that would culminate in him winning the ABCA player of the year award his junior season.
And as we all know, the Cubs would take Bryant with the second overall pick in the 2013 draft and the rest is history. Lontayo joked,
“I probably should have just retired after we signed Kris.”
Life As A Scout
For the past eight years, Lontayo has been an amateur scout for the Chicago Cubs. There are three departments in the scouting department of the Cubs: amateur, international, and professional. Lontayo said each department has roughly 20 scouts (with international having a bit more) and each scout is responsible for identifying players in their area that they believe have what it takes to be a big league player.
I’ve always heard crazy stories about the lengths teams will go to evaluate players and I was curious how the Cubs fit into that picture. Lontayo shared that they have their own internal grading system which is similar to other team’s systems but the Cubs pride themselves on creating full body reports on every player. What sets the Cubs apart from other teams, however, is the depth that they will go to “paint the full picture” of a player instead of just honing in on their skills.
He said calls to high school guidance counselors or little league coaches were not out of the ordinary because it was important to try to find what he called “hickeys,” or red flags, on a player. To him, how a player responds to adversity is just as important as his swing plane.
“I want to see how a player reacts after they get punched in the mouth.”
Valuing the character of a player as much as their skills falls directly in line with the “Cubs Way.” When Theo Epstein took the Cubs over in 2011, he made it a point to evaluate the entire player and not just the skills. It’s a belief in the Cubs system that having good people on the fields and in the offices will generate success in both arenas.
Lontayo confirmed that for me.
He touched on the level of intensity that Epstein brings to the organization and the emphasis on relationship building from the president all the way down to the players. Lontayo said it wasn’t uncommon for members of different departments to call him to get better insight on a player and most scouts are so comfortable in the system that they wouldn’t hesitate to call members of the front office to share information or simply ask a question.
He said the tone that was set by Epstein in 2011 was “contagious” and to this day, the scouting department still has the same energy they did eight years ago. One thing he said was that it’s easy to identify people who don’t genuinely buy into the “Cubs Way.”
“You’ll stand out pretty quickly if you don’t go all-in with the Cubs.”
I asked him what has changed for him since joining the Cubs in 2011 (besides winning the World Series in 2016.) He raved about the group of scouts that the club has and the amount of knowledge that is shared by everyone. They are challenged everyday to find prospects and create a full body report on each player.
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This view! Early player meeting, game and now time to knock out reports as the rain continues to fall. Typical setup (Scotch, dip, camera, and notes) when breaking players down and trying to paint the picture of who you think they are and who they will become. Just telling a story of what you see and what your gut says about each guy. This is one story of about 250 that I'll write this year, not including 250 or so smaller FOLLOW reports. #scoutslife #Cubs #MLB #gameon #Ftherain #thoughtthiswassocal #toughguychew #macallan #microsoftsurface
The amount of players per scout will vary based on the area they are in but Lontayo shared that he’s written as many as 120 reports for 120 different players. He didn’t go into detail on exactly what these reports entailed but did share that they were “extremely thorough.”
Last year was a professional milestone for Lontayo that saw him get three of his five “main guys” drafted by the Cubs. Getting a player signed by the team you work for is the ultimate goal for a scout which brings about a ton of excitement. On the flip side, missing out on a player that you’ve invested years of work into brings about some ill feelings.
Lontayo joked, “My wife knows not to talk to me on draft day.”
One thing I found extremely interesting about draft day was the fact that the Cubs try to do their best to draft at least one player from each of their scouts. Lontayo couldn’t fully confirm that but he was almost positive that since Epstein took over, Theo drafted at least one player from each scouts area every year. To put that into perspective, Lontayo knew of other scouts with different organizations that hadn’t had a player drafted in over two years.
“It’s our Super Bowl. Everything we work for all year comes down to those 72 hours and to have everything line up and get a player you believe in, is pretty special. Nothing beats that phone call to the player once it happens.”
The Future Of Cubs Baseball
Lontayo raved about the state of the current amateur scouting department and the cohesiveness they have as a staff with player development.
“Most of the guys here now, have been here for a handful of years or more and the newer guys are all solid and driven to make an impact. We know what we’re tasked with doing, as a staff, and really feel we’re scouting and signing the right type of players that PD (player development) can mold into future big leaguers.
We don’t look at publications and rankings of our system, as we’re very well aware of the guys we have and the path that they’re on. Having the PD group that we have, we’re confident those players are in the right hands to hopefully reach their ceilings soon. It’s great to get feedback from players we’ve signed and to hear the excitement that they have being a Cub. The atmosphere PD creates makes them all better players, teammates, and people. I wish I had the opportunity to be a part of this when I was a player.”
With all the recent technological innovations in baseball, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of scouting. Organizations are changing the way they scout, but Lontayo touched on how the Cubs are structured and the importance placed on their shoulders.
“As an industry, it’s tough seeing how the game is evolving and impacting scouting in general. That’s why having a baseball operations group that really believes in scouting and values our evaluations and opinions, is awesome. Then, balance that with the insight technology can bring to create any advantage we can get. We know that our gut feelings will be heard and weighed when making the choices we do. As a scout, especially in our organization, you want to impact the staff and major league team in any way you can.
I can tell you from experience, you never want to be the weak link when surrounded by your peers. We’re all competitive people and that starts at the top. Every day we’re on the road, we’re competing not only with the 29 other clubs, but with our own scouts. There isn’t a single person involved with the Cubs that doesn’t want to relive what we did in 2016 and there isn’t anyone amongst us that is content with not making it happen again. We’re all working non-stop, away from our families, and going the extra mile to put us in a position to make that happen again.”
On behalf of Cubs fans everywhere, I think it’s safe to say that we’d all be OK with reliving what happened in 2016 as well.
Thanks to Alex Lontayo for taking the time out of his schedule to sit down and chat with me. Appreciate the time!