Cubs

Cubs trying to build a global empire

411482.jpg

Cubs trying to build a global empire

Tuesday, March 29, 2011Posted 8:00 p.m. Updated 8:35 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Not that long ago, Oneri Fleitas territory included Georgia and the Florida Panhandle and all of Latin America. This was the late 1990s and Venezuela and the Dominican Republic basically fell to an area scout running a one-man operation.

There was nothing, Fleita recalled. We were starting in Latin America from ground zero.

Heres how far the Cubs and Fleita have traveled: The vice president of player personnel now has around 20 scouts covering 25 different countries, all hoping to find the next big thing.

Fleitas portfolio includes the minor-league system and international operations. Hes at the center of everything the Cubs are trying to do under chairman Tom Ricketts and a new ownership group. Soon they will break ground on a new complex in Arizona, and build a new academy in the Dominican Republic.

Sources insist that the overall budget for baseball operations remains the same in 2011. Major-league payroll has been slashed by about 10 percent, with more funds pumped into player development.

Fleitas job is to keep the pipeline flowing with talent and produce more Starlin Castros and Carlos Marmols.

Within the past few years, the Cubs have added a director of international scouting, Paul Weaver, who reports to Fleita. They also hired special assistant Louis Eljaua, the point man who helped the Red Sox and Pirates build facilities in the Dominican Republic.

Fleita has fair skin and blue eyes, but hes of Cuban descent. He grew up in Key West, Fla., some 90 miles from Cuba. As a kid, he spoke Spanish and went by his given name David.

Future Cubs general manager Jim Hendry recruited Fleita to play for him at Creighton University. Between his junior and senior years of college, Fleita returned home to Florida to visit his grandfather, who was on a deathbed with terminal cancer.

The Cuban immigrant had always wanted his grandson to be Oneri Fleita III. So Fleita changed his name to honor his grandfather, who wound up living for several more years.

He was so happy and so appreciative, Fleita said. (But) then I got to live with this name the rest of my life.
Lost in translation

Fleita smiles and laughs often while talking about his past, perhaps because it was so important to his future.

Fleita signed with the Orioles and went to his first spring training in 1989. He surveyed the room and saw all these young Latin players who didnt speak a word of English.

There were no official translators, so Fleita would grab them in the corner and try to explain what was going on. His language abilities if not his overall skill set drew the attention of Oriole officials like Roland Hemond, Doug Melvin and Jerry Narron.

They kind of looked around and said, Hey, you really cant play, but you do have a tool. Well make you a coach and you can help us out, Fleita recalled. That opened the door for me.

By 1995 Fleita had jumped to the Cubs and began to work his way up the organizational ladder. Once he started to oversee the farm system, he went to then-president Andy MacPhail with one request: Do I have permission to send my coaches to Latin America?

I had sat in enough meetings behind closed doors and heard guys use the word stupid or un-coachable, Fleita said. That bothered me because I thought if you had the opportunity to go and see where these guys grew up and understood their backgrounds and who they are you might become a better teacher (and) think of a different way to (reach) that person.

To broaden their horizons, Fleita had every one of his coaches visit the teams academy in the Dominican Republic during a three-year window. What might be normal in that culture walking out to your position is completely unacceptable here and theres value in knowing that difference.

You cant build an organization like you think youre going to build a new neighborhood, Fleita said, and have cookie-cutter homes (with) the same dimensions and (floor plans). You have to learn to work with them individually.

Father Fleita

The Ricketts family views Fleita as a father figure to all the prospects in the Dominican Republic.

Fleita lives with his wife and three children in the northern suburbs, not far from OHare, and there have been many winters where hes picked up Latin players at the airport and driven them to Northwestern Memorial. Who else is going to talk to their doctors and sit in the hospitals waiting room?

Though Fleita has a compassionate side and an advanced worldview, he knows that he doesnt have a job without the 25 guys in the Wrigley Field dugout. He understands that the Cubs have to win now.

Were all living what takes place at the major-league level, no matter where were at in this organization, Fleita said. Were going to sink and swim together. You cant forget that. You cant lose sight of that.

Baseball America recently completed its audits and ranked the Cubs system at No. 16. Its a drop from the industrys top tier in 2010, the cost of obtaining Matt Garza from Tampa Bay.

Thats exactly why Fleita does this. These departments arent waiting around to see what shortstop Hak-Ju Lee and pitcher Chris Archer might look like in 2015. They created an asset by converting Robinson Chirinos to catcher. They evaluated outfielders Brandon Guyer and Sam Fuld as expendable.

The bottom line is that the Cubs needed a frontline starter to account for 200 innings this season and beyond.

The next collective bargaining agreement could regulate the amateur draft and the international market. In theory those changes might limit the financial resources the Cubs can pour into player development. But its not like those budgets were unlimited or consistent under the Tribune Co.

Fleita knows that his staffers are constantly telling players that they have to make adjustments. Why should management be any different? In this business, you always have to be creative and flexible.

One reason why Fleita believes hes been successful in converting players to different positions Marmol, Randy Wells, Geovany Soto is because everyone in the Dominican Republic wants to be the shortstop. You need vision just to field a team, and then see what they can become.

Fleita understands that part of this job is crazy, standing on a field in a foreign country and handing out bonuses to teenagers like its Monopoly money. But what really matters is that the Cubs are finally in the global game.

Were everywhere now, Fleita said. Were in a perfect position.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

adbert.jpg
USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

0222-joe-maddon.jpg
USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.