Cubs

Seeing the future: The scout who found Starlin

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Seeing the future: The scout who found Starlin

Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011
Posted: 7:44 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Follow @CSNMooney
Jose Serra looked out across the field and saw the raw athleticism in the 16-year-old kid. But even Serra didnt think Starlin Castro would be this good, this fast.

Jose Estevez, an area scout in the Dominican Republic, had brought Castro from Monte Cristi to Santiago, where around 20 teenagers gathered for a tryout. Serra called his boss, Oneri Fleita, to tell him they found a player.

If you like him, Fleita said, sign him. So Serra offered 35,000. Castros family asked for 60,000. They compromised at 45,000.

Almost five years later, Castro will step into the batters box on Friday night at Busch Stadium, an All-Star shortstop looking for his 200th hit this season.

Its unbelievable, Serra said.

Its impossible to see all the bricks that are laid into the foundation. But if the Cubs are going to build something that lasts, it will be through the work of people like Serra, their Latin American coordinator.

Hes my second father, Castro said.

The Cubs have so much invested in the Dominican Republic that Tom Ricketts personally called Serra after he fired general manager Jim Hendry. The chairman wanted to reassure Serra that his job is safe.

The Ricketts family has purchased 50 acres of land in the Dominican Republic, where they hope to break ground on a new academy in January 2012. Fleita, the teams vice president of player personnel, recently spent 7 million on international signings.

In a dark corner of the industry that has been scarred by scandal and corruption, the Cubs have highlighted Serra, whos supposed to keep the pipeline flowing toward Wrigley Field.

Hes the face of the organization, Fleita said. When Jose Serra signs a player, (the) families there know they can entrust (him with) their child. (Hes) going to be taken care of as if they were present 247.

Serra, 39, doesnt appear to be that much older than Castro. He looks like a 5-foot-11, 160-pound middle infielder who can still turn the double play. He played for Fleita in the lower levels of the Baltimore Orioles system in the early 1990s.

When Fleita became an area scout for the Cubs in 1996, his territory included Georgia, the Florida Panhandle and all of Latin America. He called a contact in the Orioles organization, who suggested he teach Serra just released as a player how to scout. Together they set up shop in the Dominican Republic.

Some three years later, Carlos Marmol would show up at a workout in Santo Domingo. Marmol remembers it being a rainy day, and breaking his bat on his first swing. Serra signed the 16-year-old catcher anyway.

By the time Marmol got to the minor leagues, they would grow so close that he asked Serra to be his godfather when he was baptized into the Catholic faith.

Serra was also influential in convincing a proud, stubborn player to finally try pitching. When Marmol briefly lost his job as the Cubs closer this summer, Serra called with encouragement.
Jose Serra signed Starlin Castro out of the Dominican Republic and Castro calls him, "my second father." (CHICAGO CUBS MEDIA RELATIONS)
Everybody trusts him, Marmol said. He gets the respect. (Hell) be honest with you and he tells the truth.

One club official stressed that Serras skills are not limited to only evaluating 16-year-olds in the Dominican Republic. The Cubs have brought him to spring training and inside the draft room. Theyve sent him to scout college games and high school showcases, the major leagues and the minors.

Serras rising through the organization at a time when the Cubs are trying to build a global empire. Fleitas gone from essentially a one-man operation to overseeing around 20 scouts covering 25 different countries.

The Cubs are in so deep on projects that could take years to finish that Ricketts reacted to interest in Fleita from the Detroit Tigers by giving him a new four-year contract, even without a new general manager in place.

Special assistant Louis Eljaua who helped the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates build new facilities in the Dominican Republic is expected to stay on to supervise the construction of the new academy.

Under the next administration, Fleitas title and portfolio could change, but right now the Cubs felt like they couldnt afford to lose his network.

If Oneris (here), that means Ill be here, Serra said with a smile. I got nothing to worry about.

Serra couldnt have seen it then, but thats probably the most impressive part about Castros game, his ability to stay calm and handle the pressure of playing in Chicago. He has reached base in 34 consecutive games and already notched 338 hits in his first two seasons, a modern-day franchise record for a Cub.

What a bright future, first baseman Carlos Pena said. I just love the fact that even though I know inside he has this inner confidence he understands how good of a player he is hes also humble enough to understand that its always going to take work.

He appreciates the game and respects it and knows how to bow his head when he has to. (Thats) going to be very valuable to his career.

The futures of Castro, Serra and the Cubs all seem to be tied together. Alfonso Soriano has mentioned that Castros mental toughness has separated him from all the other kids coming out of the academy. But they all can dream, right?

The 21-year-old shortstop has become a global billboard for the Cubs. These kids will know nothing about goats or curses or Bartman. In one of baseballs hot spots, the scout will have instant credibility.

Everybody wants to be Starlin Castro, Serra said.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

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

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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.