Cubs trying to build a global empire

Cubs trying to build a global empire
March 30, 2011, 1:06 am
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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.