Over the past decade, player development has become a growth opportunity for the most progressive organizations in baseball to take chances and set themselves apart. Teams like the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers made player development advancements that set themselves up to repeatedly make deep runs into October.
The Chicago Cubs, during their best years at the big-league level, fell behind. Former team president Theo Epstein acknowledged that, and alongside his successor, Jed Hoyer, player development became a focus as the front office was restructured. But with Craig Breslow departing to lead baseball operations in Boston and Jared Banner’s promotion from VP of player development to assistant GM, the team’s farm director hire felt critical.
Banner’s promotion was a clear indication that the Cubs are pleased with the direction of player development. While Banner will still have input in that department, his expanded responsibilities meant the Cubs needed someone who would continue to take player development even further. By bringing in Jason Kanzler to lead the department, many around the league believe the Cubs nailed the choice.
“As far as everything I’ve seen, I don’t see major philosophical shifts,” Kanzler told The Athletic. “I see polishing things where they need to be polished, maybe discussing things, maybe looking at some things in different ways. But I don’t think we’re in the kind of situation that would warrant (major philosophical shifts). I would be a fool to not respect where this farm is currently and the work that’s been done before me.”
The Cubs’ farm is currently a consensus top-five system in baseball with numerous players on the verge of impacting the big-league club. Kanzler and his staff are tasked with making sure that success lasts.
Kanzler comes from a Houston Astros organization that was at the forefront of a player development revolution while he was a young player in the Minnesota Twins system. Drafted in the 20th round of the 2013 draft, Kanzler wasn’t shy during his minor-league days when it came to voicing his opinion about how certain aspects of development could be improved.
He eventually left the game slightly frustrated with how his career was ending, and found himself at Katy High School in suburban Houston, teaching physics and chemistry.
Kanzler coached at the high school level and went on to be an assistant coach in the Cape Cod League for two seasons. Before the 2019 season, the Astros hired him as a hitting coach for their High-A affiliate in Fayetteville, N.C. He was slated for a promotion to Double A in 2020, but with the pandemic canceling the minor-league season, he headed to Corpus Cristi, Texas, to run the hitting side of things at the Astros alternate site.
It was there where Kanzler achieved a personal goal: getting a highlight to No. 1 on SportsCenter’s Top 10.
ARE YOU KIDDING US, KANZLER?! pic.twitter.com/1dtTfSl4ZU
— Corpus Christi Hooks (@cchooks) August 10, 2020
Kanzler continued to climb the ladder, being named minor-league hitting coordinator for the Astros in 2021. The following season he was promoted to the MLB staff, where he was one of three hitting coaches who helped Houston win the 2022 World Series. After two seasons in that role, he chose to leave and lead the Cubs farm system.
“Just because you’re in the big leagues, doesn’t mean you’re no longer part of the player-development space,” Kanzler said. “In that regard, it never left me. This is an amazing opportunity with an amazing, storied franchise. It’s an excellent farm system with a lot of things put in place that are really positive. It just felt like a great opportunity personally and professionally.”
During his time in Houston, Kanzler briefly worked with current Cubs minor-league hitting coordinator Steve Pollakov and was part of the hiring committee that brought in Dai Dai Otaka, who now serves as the Cubs’ minor-league infield coordinator.
Cubs assistant GM, Ehsan Bokhari, also worked with Kanzler in Houston and highly recommended him during the Cubs’ search. The Cubs trusted Bokhari, who saw first-hand what difference-making leadership can do in player development during his time with both the Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“He’s just so forward-thinking and creative,” Bokhari said. “He’s an innovative and quick thinker. When we overlapped in Houston, he would often provide R&D research ideas. That’s just the type of person that he is and the value he brought to us. At times it felt like we had a member of (research and development) on the coordinator staff.”
The interview process and follow-up calls to others around the league only solidified that Kanzler was the right person for the job. The Cubs got feedback that Kanzler treated players equally, regardless of their status. He didn’t try to glom onto the hot prospect to get credit for their success or get caught up in their hype. He had the unique ability to see the whole picture and understand that all players matter and deserve an opportunity to unlock their potential and thrive. Top prospect or not, each player needed his attention.
Kanzler’s intense drive and broad scope of knowledge also appealed to the Cubs. He is a certified strength coach and a self-taught coder, a process that started in middle school but continued to grow during his time in Houston. When he saw R&D building tools in a way that needed more information from coaches and players, he went into action. Kanzler taught himself the programming languages R and SQL and helped create what would become central apps for the Astros in certain spaces. In his spare time, he’s built public web apps as well.
Kanzler is described as having an appetite for information and a tolerance for taking risks and trying new things. He doesn’t like to look at it as old school versus new school. He’d rather just get it right, whether it’s using new technology or applying concepts that have been around for decades.
“I think a lot of times that’s a false dichotomy used to pit people against each other,” Kanzler said. “I’m just interested in good ideas and how we can use those to help players get better as fast as possible. Because one thing players don’t have a lot of is time. That’s just the nature of the game, especially the modern game. I wish everyone had an appreciation of how little time we have to make impacts and how much more important it makes good and great ideas.”
Kanzler said that putting the player at the center of the decisions that are made and leaving no stone unturned are his two main philosophies in player development. To get the most out of any player, Kanzler understands that trust will be paramount.
“In the end, the player needs to buy into what we’re trying to deliver to them,” Kanzler said. “Part of it is building trust. Part of it is finding the appropriate messaging for the player. It’s the amazing challenge of coaching because we’re dealing with humans. If everyone was a robot, this would be really easy. We’d just feed the inputs in and they’d do the things necessary. That’s just not how it works.”
Kanzler started working in earnest soon after the holidays and has spent time in both Arizona and Chicago getting to know players, coaches and other front-office executives. He knows he has a lot to take in before the season starts. There won’t be a one-year grace period for him to take in information and learn about the organization.
The Cubs seem to be headed in the right direction, but things change fast in this game. Houston was once viewed as a cutting-edge organization, but some wonder if that’s still the case. The Dodgers remain at the forefront while the up-and-coming Baltimore Orioles nip at their heels as player-development darlings. Cleveland always gets recognition around the game for its work developing players, particularly on the pitching side.
The Cubs haven’t quite built that reputation yet. But Hoyer hopes he can deliver on creating the draft and development machine Epstein promised over a decade ago. There’s a lot of work to be done and a winning team that needs to be built into a consistent contender. Kanzler wants to be a big part of that and the Cubs hired him with that expectation.
“These first three months will be a lot of leaning on other people, really actively observing, processing everything that’s going on and getting a very firm understanding of where the Cubs are right now — and probably more importantly where we came from,” Kanzler said. “Because I need to understand why the ship is moving the way it’s moving because I can’t really affect any change if I don’t have an understanding and appreciation of where we are and where we immediately came from. I’m not going to come in and just start knocking things over like a bull in a china shop. That’s not a good way to build trust with anyone. So there’s a balance.
“But I’m not going to keep my opinions to myself. I don’t think anyone would benefit from that. I have to respect that I have a possibly fresh perspective and a different perspective. If we’re all in the search for better and truth, then new perspectives should be welcomed with open arms. So I won’t be afraid to say my piece and offer opinions.”
(Top photo of Jason Kanzler: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)