When the Chicago Cubs hired Tim Wilken to be their scouting director, they brought aboard nearly 30 years of scouting experience, and one of the best track records in the game. As Toronto’s national crosschecker and later as their scouting director, Wilken saw the Blue Jays graduate 12 consecutive first-round picks to the big leagues. Overall, Wilken spent 25 years with Toronto and two with Tampa Bay before coming to Chicago’s North Side in 2005.
David Laurila: Prior to coming to the Cubs, you worked in Tampa Bay and Toronto. What changes for a scout, or a scouting director, when he changes organizations?
Tim Wilken: In some cases it’s organizational philosophy. I had a unique thing in Tampa, and I knew when I got there that their philosophy was along the same lines as Toronto’s. There are pretty good scouts in a lot of organizations, and I found out that Tampa might have as good (a group of) area scouts as any team in baseball. If you look at their system, there’s a lot of great talent, albeit young talent.
DL: How about in Chicago?
TW: The only thing different with the Cubs–and it’s been kind of passed along from before (GM) Jim (Hendry) got here–is that it’s a little more pitcher-first. In Tampa there was more emphasis on position players, and to a somewhat lesser extent that was the case in Toronto, too. That said, Jim has told me, “Just get me major leaguers.”
DL: Some player development systems are better at producing hitters, while others are more successful with pitchers. Should that play a role in your draft philosophy?
TW: No. My thought process, for the most part, is that player development plays a role, but it’s more important that I get the player right. If he’s good enough, a player will make it–with or without the ideal system.
DL: How would you describe Tim Wilken’s draft philosophy?
TW: In some circles I’ve been given the tag of preferring high school players over college, but I don’t feel that I lean that way. I do like guys who can hit, and I like up-the-middle guys. Middle guys are usually the best players on the field, so you can move them more easily if the need arises. I know that in Toronto we had 10 of them in instructs (instructional league) one year that went on to play in the big leagues. Some, like Michael Young, Orlando Hudson, and Cesar Izturis, are still there, but others, like Casey Blake, moved to a corner or the outfield.
DL: “We want to take the best available player” is a common refrain among scouting directors. What are primary factors in determining just who the best available player is?
TW: That’s a good question, and it’s hard to answer. I guess it adds up to who you like better based on a combination of their skills and baseball ability. That’s especially true for position players. You don’t have many Bo Jackson-types where their skill supersedes their baseball instincts, so you need to make sure a player has more than just the physical tools. I’m not saying that Bo Jackson lacked them, but instincts are important.
DL: How much influence should a scouting director have on free agent signings? If there’s a potential high-impact player in the upcoming draft that you feel you can get, will you lobby against a type-A signing that will cost you that pick?
TW: I suppose there may come a time, but I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve kicked that around. I obviously have opinions, but in this position you take the cards you’re dealt. For instance, last year we didn’t have picks in the second, third, or fourth rounds. Fortunately, Jim knows the importance of having a quality farm system, and we were provided the funds to be creative in our approach. We were able to take some supposedly unsignable players, like Jeff Samardzija, Chris Huseby, and Drew Rundle, and get them signed.
DL: Samardzija has less pitching experience than most college signs, while Huseby has had Tommy John surgery. In recent drafts, projectable former position players with fresh arms have been taken by other teams. Are we seeing the start of any trends here?
TW: It’s probably more cyclic than anything. We didn’t really do it by design, as we thought those guys were our best options, talent-wise, when we picked–in the case of Samardzija, one of the best in the whole draft. But do I think there’s merit to getting guys with fresh arms and maybe a few extra years? There’s something to that. Of course, no one is exempt from arm trouble, whether they’re a high school pitcher or a college guy. You see guys with good arm action end up with arm trouble, and you get guys with questionable deliveries who don’t. You could have sworn Kevin Appier would end up needing to get his arm Black and Decker’d (from the start), but he’s generally been healthy. Not that you want to take chances on guys with questionable deliveries all that often.
DL: You signed Roy Halladay. While he obviously had great potential, did you have any concerns about him?
TW: I did have a few with how his delivery played, and I wasn’t crazy about the fact that he threw a spike-curve, which he had at the time. I’m not a gimmick guy; I’m a lot more meat and potatoes. But I obviously liked his athleticism, and he had tremendous stamina. Roy was a cross-country runner, which a lot of people probably don’t know. And he certainly had good arm speed.
DL: If a pitcher is succeeding because he has great command, but lacks good-quality stuff, what helps you determine if his success will translate to the higher levels of pro ball?
TW: Well, it’s a pretty good scout that can find a couple of them. You never totally know, and you also don’t know when some guys are going to fully develop. One thing I kid our scouts about is that they don’t check IDs on the mound. You can get off to a late start and still have some good years in you. Guys like Tony Fossas and Billy Taylor are good examples.
DL: Who are good examples of pitchers whose success didn’t translate, despite their having had outstanding command?
TW: We had guys in this industry who were going off on Kirk Sarloos. They loved his command, and talked like he was heading to Cooperstown someday. He put up stupid numbers through Double-A, but after that his breaking ball wasn’t good enough to keep lefties honest, and he lacked the fastball to keep guys off the plate. Probably 10 percent of pitchers can get away with relying on command if they don’t have the rest of the package.
DL: Moving back to last year’s draft, you took Tyler Colvin with the 13th-overall pick. Of the players drafted in the remainder of the first round, who was rated the highest on your draft board?
TW: The only guy in that area of the board who comes to mind is Tim Lincecum, who was taken right before we drafted Tyler. I thought that he’d have a quick turnaround to the big leagues, and a good future once he got there. After that, I probably felt as good about the selection as I could. We were pretty geared into Tyler.
DL: What made Colvin the clear choice?
TW: I was uncomfortable about some of the other guys who teams had ranked that highly. There were pitchers (where) I didn’t trust their whole pitching game, and I didn’t think the everyday guys had the same chances of being a frontline player that I felt Tyler did. You could probably call it a 30-year educated guess and an instinctive feeling.
TW: Ironically, I didn’t see either of them. We were picking high (in Tampa Bay) that year, and no one on the staff told me that Garza was a guy to look at in our slot. Pawelek was also marginal for that pick, plus he was a Boras guy, and Tampa Bay didn’t take Boras guys. We also knew they’d be gone when we made our next pick. As a scouting director, you really can’t afford to spend much time looking at guys you have little chance of taking. You need to concentrate your efforts on your best, and most realistic, options.
DL: You were with the Devil Rays in 2005 when Wade Townsend was the eighth-overall pick, a decision reportedly made by management against the wishes of the scouting department. Who did you want with that pick?
TW: Let me put the truth on the table. I went to management on the day of the draft and gave them the name of the guy I wanted. They went in a different direction, and what’s done is done. It would be best for me not to get into it beyond that.
DL: Every scout has guys they lobbied for which were bypassed by their organizations. Are there any examples you can give us?
TW: Well, I better start with a little disclaimer here–I’ve had success, but I also have plenty of skeletons in my closet. I’ve had my share of guys who didn’t work out. But if I had to name any, I’d say two guys I wanted and didn’t get were Nomar Garciaparra out of high school, and Brad Radke. That’s when I was the national guy in Toronto, in 1991. We could have signed Nomar, too. His father had given us the parameters it would have taken, and they were something we could have met. There was some skepticism about Nomar’s arm action, though, and not all of our scouts were sold on him. I had him pegged as a second-rounder. With Radke, I actually had his card in my hand when our turn came up, but we ended up taking a kid we didn’t sign; that was in the seventh round. Had we taken those two guys, we’d have had a hell of a draft that year. Then, the following year, I really liked Todd Helton, but wasn’t able to convince the organization to take him. In retrospect, I probably should have been stronger with my argument. That’s something you learn as you gain more experience in scouting.
DL: You’ve been scouting for almost 30 years. What are the biggest changes in the scouting process you’ve seen in that time?
TW: Certainly, one of the biggest has been the computer. Beyond that, on the amateur side, I think we’re far more thorough on background checks, collectively. Of course, some things will still get by you–Jeff Allison being a good example. Another thing is that teams are more open-minded about taking high school pitchers in the first round. Twenty years ago, about 75 percent of teams weren’t willing to do that. As for the professional side, we were never very good at scouting our own organization. Because of that, you could hit the Rule 5 pretty hard and pick up some talented players. That’s what scouting is all about: doing a good job of recognizing talent and projecting what guys are capable of doing.