Cubs trying to build a global empire

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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.

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs turned Theo Epstein’s “Baseball is Better” speech from his first Wrigley Field press conference into a marketing pitch that might distract fans for a moment from an awful big-league product.          

The 2017 “That’s Cub” ad campaign actually uses what started organically years ago within the farm system, two words that recognized a great at-bat or a heads-up play or a defensive stop.    

Business vs. baseball is no longer the dominant storyline it had been during the early phases of the Wrigleyvile rebuild. Business and baseball are booming for what’s become Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors.

It’s just interesting that a franchise valued at north of $2 billion has found so much inspiration on the back fields of this spring-training complex, where staffers you wouldn’t recognize get to work before dawn and players you’ve never heard of dream about their big break.

It’s not just drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. And trading for Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell. And hiring a manager obsessed with T-shirts. Baseball operations became a marketing department, selling prospects to Cub fans, the Chicago media and the gurus putting together the rankings – and trying to get buy-in from players who all think they belong in The Show.

Minor-league field coordinator Tim Cossins gets credit for “When It Happens,” a theme that didn’t simply revolve around 1908 and the championship drought. Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development, suggested pairing the W flag with that phrase, and it became this ubiquitous idea around the team.   

“We tied everything into it,” McLeod said Sunday at Sloan Park. “When that time comes, when it happens, can you lay the bunt down? When it happens, can you execute a pitch? Can you go in and pinch-run, steal the base when the time comes?

“The big ‘When It Happens’ is when we win, of course, but for us in (player development), it was about everything that we’re going to be asked to do in that moment: Are you going to be ready when it happens?”

Now what? The defending World Series champs are going with: “Where It Happens.”

A bullet point from Epstein’s bio in this year’s media guide references how his first three first-round draft picks with the Cubs “combined to set up the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series when Schwarber singled and (Albert) Almora pinch-ran, moved to second on Bryant’s deep fly to center, and scored on Ben Zobrist’s double.”

“We’re never going to forget about the importance of young players,” Epstein said. “There’s definitely a lot of talented, interesting prospects still in the system and sometimes they get a little overshadowed because of the star young players we have at the big-league level and how quickly some of those guys moved through the system. But there’s a lot of talent there.

“We’re going to lean on young players beyond our prospects, not just in trades, but also to provide organizational depth and also to serve as the next generation, the next infusion of talent at the appropriate time.

“But it’s a process. There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs in development for all these guys. And we have a ton of faith in our player development operation to help these guys along the way.”

So Ian Happ will start the season one phone call away at Triple-A Iowa and see if some combination of injuries and his switch-hitting skills and defensive versatility gets him to the North Side at some point. Or used as a trade chip for pitching, the way third baseman Jeimer Candelario and catcher Victor Caratini appear to be blocked.

Joe Maddon already compared Eloy Jimenez – who can’t legally buy a beer in Wrigleyville yet – to a young Miguel Cabrera or Edgar Martinez. The Cubs are practically begging for someone like Eddie Butler to pitch his way into the 2018 rotation.

By Monday morning, when the full squad reconvenes after a weekend trip to Las Vegas, the Cubs could start making cuts and shaping their Opening Night roster. But the Cubs are going to need so much more than the 25 players who will be introduced next Sunday at Busch Stadium. Maddon used 26 pitchers and 149 different lineups last season. This is “Where It Happens.”

“If this particular group of youngsters were in a different organization that had a greater need right now, you’d probably hear a lot more about these guys,” Maddon said. “But the fact that they’re stuck behind a Bryant and a Russell and a Javy (Baez) and a Rizzo and a (Willson) Contreras and a Schwarber, et cetera, et cetera, it becomes more difficult to really push or project upon these guys.

“But I think these young guys have gone about their business really well. If it’s bothering them or if they’re concerned about that, they’re not showing that. I think they’ve put their best foot forward.”

Joe Maddon doesn’t have any concerns about new Cubs closer Wade Davis

Joe Maddon doesn’t have any concerns about new Cubs closer Wade Davis

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs studied all the MRIs and analyzed every pitch Wade Davis threw last season, poring over the information on the All-Star closer. During the winter meetings, Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore even took the unusual step of allowing the Cubs to give Davis a physical exam.  

The Jorge Soler trade wouldn’t be announced until athletic trainer PJ Mainville met with Davis at his home in New York’s Hudson Valley. The Cubs got another read on the flexor strain in his right forearm that twice put Davis on the disabled list last season.

Davis now has a 19.64 ERA through five Cactus League appearances – and the complete confidence of a manager who isn’t connecting those dots.

“The injury’s really not an issue,” Joe Maddon said Sunday at the Sloan Park complex. “He feels really good right now. He kind of thought that whole thing was a little bit overblown last year, according to (what he told) me. Because even in talking to him in the offseason: ‘I’m fine. I’m good. I feel really good.’”

Maddon managed the Tampa Bay Rays while Davis broke into the big leagues as a starter and began the transition to reliever. Everything clicked in Kansas City’s bullpen, with Davis blowing away hitters and notching the last out of the 2015 World Series.

“I’m watching him,” Maddon said. “He’s throwing the ball really well easily. That’s what’s really encouraging to me. From the side, there’s no bumping and grinding and…” Maddon made a grunting noise to illustrate his point: “There’s none of that. It’s easy. I look up at the gun and I’m seeing 94, 95 and sometimes 96 (mph). It’s like: Wow, I have never seen him do that in camp.”

Across the last three seasons, Davis allowed three home runs while piling up 234 strikeouts in almost 183 innings. This spring, he has twice gotten only one out, like Saturday’s 29-pitch, four-run appearance against the Colorado Rockies. Overall in March, he’s given up eight earned runs, nine hits and five walks in 3.2 innings.  

“Honestly, I’ve known him long enough that it’s not” a concern, Maddon said. “You’re not going to believe this, but he’s actually throwing better than he normally does in spring training. The biggest problem he’s having right now is command.

“Velocity looks good. The break on the breaking ball looks good. He’s just not throwing the ball where he wants it. And this guy is normally the kind of pitcher that can dot it up really well.

“But everything else looks really good to me, (because) I had him back with the Rays and in spring training you always saw him throwing like 86, 87, 88 (mph). I’m seeing easy 94-95. I’m seeing sharp break on some breaking stuff. It’s just bad counts and bad command right now.”

This isn’t the Cubs saying Carlos Marmol or Jose Veras is our closer. A guy with a 0.84 ERA in 23 career playoff appearances doesn’t care about Cactus League stats. As long as Davis is healthy, there should be no doubts about the ninth inning. Check back next week amid the sea of red at Busch Stadium.

“A lot of it’s just an adrenaline rush sometimes,” Maddon said. “A lot it’s just a moment that you can’t recreate here. You can’t do it. It’s impossible.”