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.

Adbert Alzolay makes some memories on an otherwise forgettable night for the Cubs

Adbert Alzolay makes some memories on an otherwise forgettable night for the Cubs

The Cubs lost an entirely forgettable game on Tuesday night, dropping the second of their four games against the NL East-leading Braves by a score of 3-2. They left four men on base, only managed four hits, ran into two outs, and made one error in a game that was over well in time for a Clark Street nightcap, or three. 

What was memorable about Tuesday night was the performance of Adbert Alzolay, the Cubs’ top pitching prospect who was making his first major league start. The final line: 4.2 innings pitched, one hit, one run, four walks and four strikeouts. It’s certainly not the prettiest line you’ll see in tomorrow’s box scores, but the 24 year old passed the eye test with flying colors. 

“Everything was good - he was outstanding,” Joe Maddon said after the game. “I just think he hit a well there at the end. We just have to get him more used to that. Listen, he’s been injured in the past, he’s coming back - you’ve got to be real sensitive to the number of pitches and workload you put on him, because you can see how good he’s going to be.”

Things got off to an inauspicious start for Alzolay, whose first pitch of the game was crushed 413 feet into the left field bleachers for a leadoff homer, courtesy of Braves’ outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. It would prove to be the only hit and run that Alzolay allowed on the night. 

“It’s just one pitch,” he said. “You have to keep working - the game continues. I was just starting the game, so if you lose your mind in that situation than you’re not going to last a lot of innings.

“Even after the home run, he came right back and said, ‘I’m fine’,” Maddon added. “Then he went up and got three really good hitters out. I liked the mound demeanor, we’ve just got to get him a little further along in regards to being stretched out.”

After coming out flat with his secondary pitches during his 4-inning relief appearance on June 20th, Alzolay flashed better command and execution of both his curveball and changeup. Half of his strikeouts came on the curveball - one to get left fielder Austin Riley in the 2nd and one to get Acuña in the 3rd. After throwing 13 changeups in his debut, Alzolay double that number on Tuesday (27). 

“I’m feeling really confident throwing the pitch in any count,” Alzolay said of his changeup. “Tonight I threw it a couple times when I was behind in the count and I got a good result after that, so I’ll just keep on throwing it.

“For us to get confident at something, you have to practice, you have to execute it, and you have to use it in the game,” said catcher Willson Contreras, who plated both of the Cubs’ two runs with a double in the 4th. “For him to be able to throw the changeup for a strike, and strikeout people, it’s really good - especially at his age.”

Maddon couldn’t answer when Alzolay would make his next start. With Kyle Hendricks eyeing a return around the All-Star break, there would seemingly be a few more opportunities ahead of the rookie. Given what he showed on Tuesday night, it’d be hard to argue against it.

"He can be really good in the big leagues," Contreras said. "He still needs to make adjustments like all of us, but with the confidence he has, the ability he has, and the way he prepares before the games, it's going to take him a long way."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Ryne Sandberg: Part 1

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Ryne Sandberg: Part 1

Luke Stuckmeyer sits down with Cubs legend Ryne Sandberg for a wide-ranging conversation centered around the infamous "Sandberg Game."

Ryne gives insight into his feelings upon being traded to the Cubs (2:00), and discusses the reason he ended up with the No. 23 (5:00). Plus, how the 1984 season changed everything and raised his personal expectations sky-high (9:00) and the "Daily Double" dynamic between him and Bob Dernier (16:00).

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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