Ex-Cubs VP Fleita joins Reds as a consultant

Ex-Cubs VP Fleita joins Reds as a consultant
February 4, 2013, 4:00 pm
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Oneri Fleita – the player-development executive who helped the Cubs build a pipeline in the Dominican Republic – has signed on as a consultant with the Cincinnati Reds.

The day after the Super Bowl is when attention shifts back to baseball and Fleita wants to find a way back into the game. He will spend some time at the Reds complex in Arizona during spring training and take on scouting assignments in the major and minor leagues this season.

“You miss it this time of year,” Fleita said Monday in a telephone interview. “It’s a good place for me to put my feet back on the ground and be part of a great organization.”

Team president Theo Epstein fired Fleita last summer on Aug. 15 – the morning after Cubs employees gathered for their annual photo at Wrigley Field – as part of a major front-office shakeup.

At the time, Epstein said he considered reduced roles for Fleita, but couldn’t find a match given his experience, contacts and relationships – and the awkward chain-of-command issues that might create.

Epstein had hired Jason McLeod as his senior vice president of scouting and player development, which marginalized Fleita, who joined the organization in 1995, but kept a noticeably lower profile last season.

Fleita played for Jim Hendry at Creighton University and became one of his closest allies as the old college coach rose to become the Cubs general manager. As vice president of player personnel, Fleita also developed a strong bond with the Ricketts family while the team’s new owners planned to build a new academy in the Dominican Republic.       

In September 2011, after Hendry was fired and while the Cubs were gearing up to make a run at Epstein, chairman Tom Ricketts reacted to interest from the Detroit Tigers and Fleita leveraged that into a new four-year contract. That deal contains a standard offset clause against future employment, but otherwise the Cubs will be paying Fleita through 2015.

Fleita didn’t leave bitter – he was more amazed that he lasted 17 years in the same organization and grateful for all the friends he made on the North Side. Not bad for a kid from Key West, Fla.

“(Theo) could have put me in a cubicle and let me rot,” Fleita joked. “You get the keys to the building, you have to make tough decisions.

“In this business, we all know change is inevitable (and) you just understand it. You respect it.”  

Starlin Castro and Carlos Marmol have both described Fleita as a father figure. After finalizing a contract that could be worth up to $76 million and run through 2020, Castro’s agent, Paul Kinzer, invited Fleita to Harry Caray’s for a celebration one night last season.   

Fleita’s legacy includes a franchise shortstop in Castro, plus converting Marmol into an All-Star setup guy and a dominant/erratic closer at times. (When reached last week by the Chicago Tribune, Marmol’s representative denied an abuse allegation made by a woman in the Dominican Republic, claiming it’s an extortion attempt.)

There’s also Welington Castillo, a potential core player manager Dale Sveum believes can evolve into a Gold Glove catcher.

Clearly, the Cubs needed their farm system to produce more impact talent, and that deficiency can’t be entirely blamed on ownership instability and the inconsistent commitment to the draft and international market.

But Darwin Barney has developed into a Gold Glove second baseman and Jeff Samardzija finally looks like a frontline starter. The Cubs also created enough inventory to trade for Matt Garza and Anthony Rizzo.

For years, there was a player-development manual to teach the game throughout the system, though not nearly as detailed or thorough as “The Cubs Way” promoted by the Epstein administration.  

Fleita – a bilingual speaker whose family has roots in Cuba – was part of the group that recruited outfielder Jorge Soler and left-hander Gerardo Concepcion last year. Soler is viewed as a foundation piece in Epstein’s rebuilding project, while Concepcion – who got $6 million guaranteed in a five-year, major-league contract – was assigned outright to Class-A Kane County after clearing waivers this winter.

Fleita is proud of the scouts who’ve been given greater responsibilities inside the new regime – like Louis Eljaua, Alex Suarez and Jose Serra. He is looking forward to working with Reds general manager Walt Jocketty and vice president Bill Bavasi and seeing how they run their operation.

Fleita has enjoyed spending more time with his family in Chicago’s northern suburbs, but feels it’s time to get back in the game. There will be familiar faces in Reds camp – like Dusty Baker, Jim Riggleman and Sean Marshall.

Fleita said he’s allowed to talk to other teams if opportunities open up this year. But this consulting gig gives him an inside look at an organization that won 97 games last season and has World Series ambitions.

“It’s a good landing spot,” Fleita said. “Maybe I can learn something new after 17 years in the same place. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”