Interview: Cardinals Vice President Jeff Luhnow

The St. Louis Cardinals' new head of amateur and international scouting gives his first interview in his expanded role.

Less than 18 months after joining the St. Louis Cardinals as Vice President of Baseball Development, Jeff Luhnow is now assuming new responsibility for the team's amateur and international scouting initiatives. In fact, he's already deep into these expanded duties. I caught up with Luhnow in between trips to Panama, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.

In this exclusive and far-ranging interview, Luhnow provides the scoop on his new role, what it means to the 2005 draft, a profile of the key Cardinals' scouting personnel, an update on the team's plans in Latin America and much, much more.

Jeff, as always, I appreciate you taking the time to talk. Congratulations on your new responsibilities.

Thank you.

Those who have followed your work should not have been surprised by you taking over international scouting, but all of amateur scouting is another step entirely. Will you please provide more of the thinking behind this decision?

I can't comment on that beyond what Walt (General Manager Walt Jocketty) has already said. I was involved in the amateur scouting efforts last year; providing analytical support as well as getting out into the field and understanding how our scouts work. I led a study of our scouting efforts, both domestic and international, with participation from Mo (Assistant General Manager John Mozeliak) and all of our scouts. We shared those results with Walt and with the ownership group.

Part of that included a number of recommendations that should enable the Cardinals to have continued success in the draft. Over the last decade, the organization has been among the most successful in drafting players that became big leaguers – and not just marginal part time players either, but significant players the likes of (Albert) Pujols, (J.D.) Drew, (Adam) Kennedy, (Coco) Crisp and (Jack) Wilson.

The jury is still out on the last five years, where we have had some unfortunate injuries and some disappointing results relative to expectations – especially with some of the top round picks. Having said that, there are several players from those years that could keep the streak going… including (Anthony) Reyes, (Brad) Thompson, (Chris) Duncan, (Dan) Haren and (Daric) Barton. To properly evaluate an amateur scouting organization, you have to give the department credit even when the player doesn't stick with the original organization.

What are your plans for the Cardinals' amateur scouting efforts?

This is an important year for the Cardinals scouting department. We have two picks in the first round, two in the sandwich round, and two in the third round. With six picks before the end of the second round, we have an opportunity to add some depth to our minor league system and add some interesting prospects to our organization.

Our first two picks are at the back end of the first round, which may be a blessing this year. At this point, the draft class seems solid, and there will be very good players available when we select. We will have five picks in rapid succession – two at the end of the first round, two in the sandwich round, and one early in the second round.

Right now we are gathering as much information as we can on the top players. As we get closer to June (the draft on June 7th and 8th), we will have a better feel for who we want and who will be available when we select, and who we think we can sign. Our area scouts have been out in the field for weeks watching players work out and seeing them in action as the games get under way. Our supervisors have already been out "cross-checking" the top players. We know most of the top players from prior seasons, and we've already seen many of the top guys this season. I've already had the chance to see half a dozen potential first round picks.

In addition to evaluating the player's tools, the area scouts are getting to know the players individually to assess their character and what the industry refers to as "makeup". Every team has made mistakes in the past, ourselves included, by not getting to know the players well enough and simply relying on their tools or performance.

At Busch Stadium, we are busy crunching performance numbers for the college players, analyzing video of the players, reviewing and interpreting the psychological test results, and furiously working on scheduling to help the area scouts and supervisors work as efficiently as possible in their coverage. We already have a force-ranked list of the top 700 players in the draft. Of course that list will change as the year goes on, but it provides us with a tool to focus our resources.

Since the questions seem to keep coming, I have to ask once again this time - are you going to focus on college players in the draft?

In scouting, there are some tradeoffs that every club must face. One of the most discussed tradeoffs in recent years is the risk-reward relationship of younger versus older amateur players. The older, more physically mature players are in college, and it's relatively easier to understand the type of player they are likely to become. There is less, what we call "projection" in these players.

With a younger player, whether in high school or a free agent in Latin America, it's much harder to tell what kind of player they will be in professional baseball. They are still developing physically and still learning how to play the game. They haven't received the benefit of college coaching and the sophisticated instructional, training and conditioning programs that you find in the top programs here in the US.

The unknowns associated with younger players can be a plus or a minus, depending upon your goals and your perspective. Why is it that a 16-year-old Latin American player will receive a signing bonus in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, while a similar player with the same tools at the age of 20 struggles to get a chance, with no bonus? The international scouts put a tremendous premium on youth – and pay dearly for it. Many of the big bonus amounts each year are paid out to 16-year-old players immediately after they are able to be signed. Why? It's simple. The upside is unlimited at that age. You can dream on a player and see him becoming the next Miguel Cabrera or Oliver Perez. Perez was throwing in the low 80's when he was signed (to a Mexican club). Now, in his early 20's, he throws up to 97, has multiple pitches in his repertoire and is one of the game's premier left-handed starters.

We've studied the history of the draft and analyzed the outcomes upside down and sideways. We know the historical success rate by position, by area, by level – you name it, we've got the data. Like any good company in the corporate world, we've done the work to understand our industry and the factors that drive success. There are many interesting findings in the analysis that I wish I could share with you. These findings have influenced our approach. We will continue to study these important issues and try to get every edge we can – the Cardinal Nation would expect no less.

For us, it comes down to an assessment of our objectives, the resources we have at our disposal, and our risk profile. A team with six picks in the first two rounds should be in a better position to take on more risk than a team with two picks. Of course, money is a critical piece of the overall equation. It takes many dollars to draft and sign six high picks. Very few teams have the resources to take the best available player and sign them all, without considering how much they might cost.

Simply put, to answer the question "Are we going to look exclusively at college players?" is no. We are going to attempt to find and sign the best players for our organization, and we won't accomplish that by limiting that search and eliminating entire categories of players.

Are there other personnel changes planned for the amateur scouting side of the organization?

Last year, under Mo's leadership, we empowered the area scouts and gave them more responsibility and accountability. For the first time, we had all the area scouts come to St. Louis and participate in the draft. That was a positive change and something we plan to continue doing. After the draft was over, Mo, I and several other people began planning for this season. We made some changes that build on the progress we made in 2004.

First, we hired three new area scouts, created five new supervisor positions, and hired an Assistant Scouting Director. Many people thought that by hiring me and investing in a more analytical approach, we would continue to cut back on scouts. That didn't happen. You simply cannot make the best decisions without having people that are trained in evaluating players see them in action. I firmly believe that, as do the rest of the people in the front office.

We have some outstanding and very experienced supervisors leading this department:

Marty Maier has been scouting for the Cardinals since 1979 in various capacities. As an area scout, Vince Coleman, Danny Cox and Luis Alicea top the list of the major league players he signed. As a scouting director, he brought Dan Haren, Deric Barton, Placido Polanco, Rick Ankiel and various other prospects to the organization. After a year helping Walt and scouting on the professional side, he is back in a key role in the amateur scouting area.

Chuck Fick brought us Adam Kennedy, Jack Wilson, and Coco Crisp, among others. He's covered the critical hot spot of southern California for many years, and is currently playing an important leadership role for the club. He joined the Cardinals in 1993.

Mike Roberts started with the Cardinals in 1978. He has been cross-checking for the past decade and was heavily involved in scouting and bringing Albert Pujols to the club, as well as other big league players, including Tom Pagnozzi.

Joe Rigoli has been with the club since 1981, as a coach, manager and scout. As an area scout in the northeast, he signed Matt Morris, Joe McEwing, and last year's top pick, Chris Lambert.

Our Assistant Scouting Director is back with the Cardinals again. Dan Kantrovitz grew up in the St. Louis area, played baseball at John Burroughs High School, then after playing baseball at Brown University was drafted by the Cardinals. After his playing career was cut short due to injury, he became an investment banker, and then got back into baseball working for a company that supplies and analyzes statistics and other information to the industry. (Note: Kantrovitz' rehiring was announced on December 23, the same day that attention was drawn to the signing of David Eckstein.)

How will amateur and professional scouting work together and how will scouting work with player development?

Bruce (Manno) heads up our player development area and reports directly to Walt. Bruce and I have worked together since my arrival and will work closely together going forward to make sure we draft and develop players in a way that best serves the organization. Mo will have expanded duties and leadership in the pro scouting area, with Marteese Robinson in place as director and several very experienced full time and part time scouts. I will rely heavily on Mo for guidance and counsel in the amateur area, since he has had two tenures as scouting director. We will continue to develop player evaluation tools that serve both the amateur scouting side and the pro side.

With a new boss coming in, especially one who may see things differently from a baseball traditionalist, how will you ensure trepidation among the scouts is minimized?

Trepidation typically stems from the fear of the unknown. I've done my best to get to know all our scouts and listen to what they have to say, and benefit from their experiences. We are a team, as the players on the field are a team, and we have to work together to be most effective. They know that I welcome all points of view and that we will analyze the issues thoroughly prior to making any decisions. As time goes on, I hope whatever trepidation exists will go away. We have the same goal… that makes things easier!

In your expanded role, how will you leverage your work with statistics over the past year plus?

We used our proprietary player evaluation tools last year to assist with the draft. We have made improvements to those tools and will continue to use them this year. The key is to know when to use them and how much to rely on them. That part I can't discuss, but you can safely assume we are at least at par and likely ahead of other teams in this area.

What are some examples of the administrative duties that Walt Jocketty mentioned you will be assuming and how will they relate to what happens on the field?

There are a lot of "duties" involved in making sure we produce the best possible results. In some ways, we are organized much like other clubs – with area scouts and cross-checkers (typically more experienced scouts that provide a second opinion on the top players). We are doing some things differently – most of them intended to increase efficiency and communications, and make us more confident in our decisions. To me, it's not much different that running a company in the business world. The things I used to think about as President and COO of Archetype with 35 employees are similar to the challenges of running a scouting department with over 20 full time scouts. Managing and motivating people are critical success factors – whether they are engineers, software developers or baseball scouts.

I will be out there seeing players… I already have and won't stop. I've been working hard to develop myself as a talent evaluator – going to scout school, spending time with some of the game's premier scouts, and then just getting out and doing it. But rest assured the Cardinals fate is not in the hands of a rookie scout – we have some of the best talent evaluators in the business and we will rely on their opinions of tools much more than mine!

Walt mentioned geographic coverage changes to make scouting more efficient. Will you please provide an example?

As Walt mentioned in the Post-Dispatch article, we reconfigured our areas this year so that we could improve our chances of evaluating the top players multiple times. We considered the number and type of players that tend to come from each area, as well as the geographic and weather related challenges facing each area. While some of our area guys will have to become familiar with new territory, the long term benefits of being properly aligned will be worth the short term cost and complexity. Last year, we had one scout cover Texas and Oklahoma, and he was based in Oklahoma. This year, we have a dedicated scout in Texas and two part time scouts helping out. Texas is a hotbed of talent every year.

How do you know that providing increased coverage to more fertile areas is actually better? After all, won't your competitors be targeting the same areas?

Of course they will! Remember it's a draft… so we all get to pick. It's not a matter of who has more money. When our picks come around, we want the best player. They typically are not found in Montana, Vermont or Idaho (no disrespect to those states)… they are playing in Texas, California and Florida!

When will we be hearing more specifics about the team's increased focus in Latin America?

Stay tuned. I'm hoping sometime in the next few weeks. We are already active, as you know. After a brief hiatus, we resumed scouting and development in 2004 and are well-positioned to take more than our fair share of talent coming out of Latin America. Our scouting coordinator for Latin America, Enrique Brito, has signed ten players that have made it to the big leagues (most of them during his time with the Twins) including Juan Rincon and Luis Rivas. He was also very influential in bringing Johan Santana to the Twins. His biggest find, by far, was Miguel Cabrera. He discovered and signed Cabrera as a youngster for one of the Venezuelan teams, and strongly urged Minnesota to sign him (which they were unable to do).

Brito is currently searching high and low for the next Cabrera, and when he finds him we will make sure he wears Cardinal red. Some of the youngsters that Brito has helped to find for the Cardinals recently include Juan Lucena, Jose Martinez, and Donovan Solano (the future pipeline of shortstops). Several of the Latin players will be at Spring Training, and the fans that frequent the low minor leagues will get a chance to see them first-hand this year. We have scouts in the DR, Venezuela, Colombia, the Dutch Antilles, Nicaragua, Mexico and Panama. These countries represent the vast majority of the baseball talent in Latin America.

How do you answer those critics who fear that Latin America is already oversaturated in coverage by other teams?

I would suggest they take a trip to the DR and see what is happening there first-hand. There is plenty of talent to go around. I was just there last week and we evaluated over 50 players in two days. Brito is still there looking at another bunch and bearing down on the guys we want to sign. There are 70 (yes, seventy) official programs just in Santo Domingo developing athletes for MLB clubs – some with ten players, some with upwards of 50 to 100. It's a baseball talent factory. And it doesn't stop in the DR… there are many countries with potential. I've got my favorites, but I'm keeping that to myself for now because some of them are not heavily scouted and I'd like it to stay that way!

Why do you think the Cardinals can be successful in carving out a Caribbean niche this time when they have failed in the past?

We got Jose Jimenez, Manny Aybar, Geronimo Pena, Pablo Ozuna and others from our efforts in the past. Maybe not as many as some other clubs, but we didn't dedicate the resources in the same way as other clubs. We will be successful because we have a sound plan, some great scouts, an ownership group and GM who are committed to the program, and a leadership team busting its hump to make sure it works. I travel more now than I did while at McKinsey as a management consultant, and Brito is 100% baseball, 100% of the time.

What about the East? What will the Cardinals' plans be for newer player sources such as Korea and Japan?

As for other parts of the world, we plan to be active only after we understand the market for players and have developed a strategy. We were careful about how we reentered Latin America, and we will be careful about how we scout in Asia and other parts of the world. A lot of money and time can be wasted without proper preparation and understanding of the dynamics in each market. Australia, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Holland and Italy are on our radar and we will be studying those markets in the near future.

Will you be adding other employees to help out on the Baseball Development side, based on your increased responsibilities?

Our staffing plan has not changed in that area. We are making great progress and that will continue. There is a long list of projects, to be sure, but we have some very smart people working on them. I am confident we have caught up to the innovators. I'd be surprised if we weren't ahead in many of these areas.

Walt Jocketty implied this may not be a long-term assignment for you. How will you gauge your success and know when it is time to move to other roles?

That's not my call, and I don't know what the future holds. I'm giving this 100%... actually more than 100%, and I hope to stay involved indefinitely. The challenge with scouting is that the results are usually not known for many years. I'm confident we will have success, and in doing so help bring more championship trophies to St. Louis.

Read two earlier Birdhouse exclusive interviews with Jeff Luhnow here: interview link

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.


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