The Farm System and Football….The Final Day at the Convention

Congratulations to the 2006 NFC Champion Chicago Bears, the City of Chicago and their devoted fans from everyone here at the CCO!!!

Day three of the 2007 Cubs Convention had a different feel from the rest of the weekend. The convention was held at the Chicago Hilton and overnight it became more like the New Orleans Hilton….the emphasis on the Cubs had been replaced by Championship Sunday. The vendors all packed up their belongings and waited along side the likes of Randy Hundley, Oneri Fleita, Tim Wilken and Mike Bielecki in the chaos that was known as valet parking loop.

The 2007 Cubs Convention concluded on Sunday with three more sessions, “Meet Cubs Business Management”, “Down on the Farm” and “Hello Again Everybody, the Harry Caray Story”. The Cubs minor league system has garnered a lot of attention, unfortunately, with all of the injuries that took place last year, so with Oneri Fleita, Tim Wilken, Donald Veal and Eric Patterson in attendance, there was only one true decision for the last gathering of the convention.

Oneri Fleita has been the Director of Player Development for the Cubs for the past 7 years and has been with the organization for the last 9. He was extremely open with his assessment of the Cubs minor league system on Sunday. He reminded everyone in attendance that the Cubs had 46 players on their active roster at the major league level in 2006. With all of the player movement up and down the system, 5 of the 6 Cubs farm teams played meaningful games in September and the Iowa Cubs tied the Nashville Sounds for 1st place in the PCL but did not make the postseason due to tie breaking scenarios with the Sounds. As a whole the Cubs farm system was 30 games over .500 for the year.

Fleita was asked about what the Cubs planned to do with pitchers such as Ryan O’Malley and Carlos Marmol now they have signed players to long term deals that might be blocking their progress to the major leagues. He said the Cubs feel like some of the contracts would be movable in a couple of years and they do not feel any of their prospects have been blocked. Fleita went on to explain Carlos Marmol and Juan Mateo both performed well last season with the Cubs and the experience they gained could turn out to be very valuable. He did state he feels both (Marmol and Mateo) still need another year in the minors before being able to remain with the big league club on a permanent basis. He went on to explain the Cubs figure they can never have enough pitching and he likes the depth they have in the system; he also said on several occasions throughout the hour that he hopes the young guys make it hard for Lou and his staff coming out of spring training.

Tim Wilken is entering his second season as the Director of Scouting for the Cubs. Wilken had been with the Toronto Blue Jays organization since 1979 and 15 of his 16 first round picks with the Blue Jays have made it to the major league level (and there is still a possibility the 16th could). Wilken was asked about the upcoming draft, when the Cubs will pick and how much they lost with all of their off-season activity. Wilken said the Cubs will have the 3rd overall pick in the 2007 draft and the 31st pick or 1st sandwich pick in between rounds 1 and 2 as compensation for Juan Pierre signing with the Dodgers. The Cubs lost only their 2nd round pick and will have picks in the 3rd and 4th rounds this year….unlike the 2006 draft.

Wilken was asked what is the option status for the pitchers in the minor leagues. He said Angel Guzman was just granted a 4th option and that all the pitchers have options left. He mentioned the remaining options gave them more flexibility with signing the likes of Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis this past December. Wilken went on to say Guzman performed very well in winter ball and regained the curve ball he had 2 years ago. He said Guzman has been healthy and looks forward to competing for a spot on the big league club out of spring training.

When asked about the injuries of the pitchers at the major league level, as well as in the minors, Fleita let everyone know the Cubs had changed a few of their thoughts and practices on getting a pitcher ready to perform in spring training (he did not go into great detail here) and let everyone know that surgeries for pitchers in the organization have dropped the last 3 seasons (24-16-9). Fleita did mention some of what they changed was as simple as when a pitcher may throw batting practice. He said in the past a pitcher would get loose and was allowed to “cool” down before he pitched batting practice….that is no longer allowed and once a pitcher “cools” down, he is done for the day.

Fleita let everyone in on a phrase he uses to describe possible prospects…. “Winter Ball Wonder.” He went onto explain certain players just perform extremely well in winter ball and/or spring training but cannot play the same when a second deck of seats are in the stadium.

Fleita also has a nickname for Felix Pie, whom both Wilken and Fleita raved about and called him a very interesting young man, “The Wow Guy”. He went on to explain Pie is so talented that he makes remarkable plays that elicit the response “Wow”. But some nights he also makes a few not-so-good-plays that elicit the same response “Wow”. They said Pie’s teammates like playing with him and feel they can win the game when he is around.

Donald Veal and Eric Patterson, as mentioned, were in attendance. Patterson was very well spoken and reiterated time and time again he is willing to play any position the Cubs need for him to play in order for him to help the club win the World Series. Patterson spoke about plate discipline and how he is learning what pitches he can and cannot handle. Eric is 3 1/2 years younger than brother Corey and he told everyone he communicates with his brother on a daily basis. He said he and his brother work out together in the off-season and one fan accidentally called him Corey.

Donald Veal received a lot of praise from both Wilken and Fleita. Wilken spoke highly and enthusiastically about Veal’s curveball and mentioned the reason his strike to ball ratio might be a little skewed is when a young pitcher has a curve ball of the quality that Veal possess, catchers and umpires in the lower classes of the minor leagues have trouble catching it and in the umpire’s case calling it a strike. Wilken was very quick to say he was not putting down the umpires in A-ball. Veal said he has 3 pitches, a fastball, a changeup and a curve. He said he works on different grips and how the ball comes off his fingers in the off-season. Veal just returned from Mesa where he was working on improving his hitting and bunting.

Veal went on to mention he realizes he still has plenty to work on and all of the different strategies of the game he must learn. He has his own personal time frame to make it to the major leagues but has no doubt it will happen when he is ready. He stressed he has to learn how to throw more strikes, cut down on his walks and has to build his confidence to where he knows he can throw any pitch at any given time and get an out. Fleita said Veal will be a part of the mini camp they have for the 30 top players in their farm system that starts 12 days before spring training.

The question of, “who was your favorite ballplayer growing up”, was posed to Patterson and Veal. Patterson mentioned the names Terry Pendleton and Ron Gant (Patterson grew up in the Atlanta area) and Donald Veal mentioned two very interesting names. Apparently Veal used to be an outfielder and really liked to watch Kenny Lofton play. The second player he mentioned was Vida Blue. One of Veal’s pitching coaches mentioned to Veal once how much he reminded him of Vida Blue. So after the comparison was made, Veal went out and found as much information as he could about Vida Blue. Of all the names you might expect to hear from the young Mr. Veal, the name of Vida Blue would not have been the first to come to mind. If the Cubs have indeed landed the next Vida Blue, the longing to have Dontrelle Wills back should disappear over the next few years.

The statement that stuck out from the hour spent listening to the four gentlemen was….the Cubs are preparing them to win at the major league level, not to win championships at the minor league level.

After the “Down on the Farm” session was over the hotel had been taken over by New Orleans Saints fans. There was a quick stop to see Holden Kushner from XM Radio, at his invitation, and then a fleeting effort to try to enjoy more of the convention.

The CCO will have a few more articles from the weekend including observations from the convention, The Boys of Zimmer, the quotes that stuck and the Sports Central Live highlights. But for now, needless to say the convention was a success and unless the upcoming season produces a different result, chances are we will hear it all again next year.

Let’s all hope the “W” flies as much a top the flagpole this season as it did in the Hilton this weekend.

Links for the recaps from the first two days of the convention

Oh What a Night….Day One at the Convention

A Passion for the Game….Day Two at the Convention

Links for the photo galleries from the first two days of the convention

Click Here for a Photo Gallery from Day One of the 2007 Cubs Convention

Click Here for a Photo Gallery from Day Two of the 2007 Cubs Convention

Quote of the Day

"You can’t sit on a lead and kill the clock. You’ve got to give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game." - Earl Weaver