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.

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Theo Epstein answered questions from the Chicago media for more than an hour on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, but the most interesting part might have been what the Cubs president didn’t say, something along the lines of: These are our guys.

Or at least Epstein didn’t give the same full-throated endorsement of The Core that he delivered after engineering the Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox this summer, getting an All-Star pitcher without giving up anyone from the big-league roster.

Whether it’s the way the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs throughout the National League Championship Series that ended Thursday night, the inconsistencies and frustrations during a 43-45 first half of this season or the reality of losing 40 percent of the rotation, you walked out of that stadium club press conference thinking big changes could be coming.

“We’re going to pursue all avenues to get better,” Epstein said.

The Cubs already understood this would be a challenging time to dramatically reshape their pitching staff, with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, Big Boy John Lackey and All-Star closer Wade Davis about to become free agents.

The Cubs don’t really have many (any?) high-end, headliner prospects left to trade after borrowing heavily from their farm system to acquire Aroldis Chapman for last year’s World Series run and get Quintana to help solidify the rotation through 2020.

All of Major League Baseball is looking beyond this winter and preparing for the monster free-agent class that will hit the open market after the 2018 season.

Meaning it’s time for the Cubs to make some difficult decisions about all these young hitters they’ve collected.

“It may or may not be,” Epstein said. “Those choices, they’re not unilateral things. You can’t sit there and decide: ‘Hey, this guy, we’re moving him.’ Because you don’t know what the return might be. You don’t know how the different moving parts might fit together.

“I think going into the offseason prepared to make some tough choices and execute on them — and keeping an open mind to anything — is appropriate under the circumstances where we have some obvious deficits and we have some real surplus with talented players who are really desirable.”

Let’s assume All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, MVP third baseman Kris Bryant and catcher Willson Contreras are essentially untouchable.

The Cubs used the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft on Ian Happ with the explicit idea that the college hitter should be on a fast track and could be flipped for pitching later: Is it time to sell high after the rookie just put up 24 homers and an .842 OPS?

During an exit meeting with Albert Almora Jr., Epstein said he couldn’t promise an everyday job in 2018, though the expectation would be more responsibilities: Think anyone else would be interested in a potential Gold Glove center fielder who’s already playoff-tested?

Do you want Addison Russell or Javier Baez as your everyday shortstop for the next four years? Is there an American League team willing to bet big that Kyle Schwarber will crush 40 homers a year as a designated hitter?

The Cubs have to ask themselves those types of questions, which could mean getting outside of their comfort zone and taking on some riskier pitching investments and sapping the strength that has turned them into the dominant force in the NL Central.

“We’ve really benefitted from having two or three extra — and ‘extra’ in quotes because they’re not really extra — starting-caliber players on the roster,” Epstein said. “That helped us win 97 games in ’15, 103 last year, 92 this year. That’s as big a part of the club as anything.

“Having an Addison Russell go down and being able to move Javy Baez to shortstop — that’s an obvious example of it. But those things show up every week for us. There’s a day where someone can’t make the lineup and someone else slides in and you’re still starting eight quality guys. That’s huge.

“Sooner or later, you reach a point where you have to strongly consider sacrificing some of that depth to address needs elsewhere on the club. There’s no sort of deadline to do that. But I think we’re entering the phase where we have to be really open-minded to that if it makes the overall outlook of the team and organization better.”

Translation: The Cubs are open for business. Make your best offer.

Cubs Talk Podcast: 2017 season obituary and previewing an interesting winter for Cubs

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: 2017 season obituary and previewing an interesting winter for Cubs

In the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull, Patrick Mooney and Tony Andracki close the book on the 2017 season following Theo Epstein’s press conference, looking back at what will go down as the craziest calendar year in Cubs history from last November through the team’s loss in the NLCS this October.

Moving forward, where do guys like Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Justin Wilson and Mike Montgomery fit? Will the Cubs re-sign Wade Davis or go after another proven closer? And how worried should fans be about the offense that completely disappeared in the postseason?

Take a listen below: