Cubs Convention Day Three: Depth Down on the Farm

Down on the Farm … presented by the VineLine was the final session of the weekend. Mike Huang, editor of the VineLine hosted the session that featured Oneri Fleita (Vice President of Player Personnel) and Tim Wilken (Cubs Scouting Director) … along with Andrew Cashner, Brett Jackson, James Adduci and Welington Castillo.

Down on the Farm

The Cubs’ minor league system has received a tremendous amount of criticism in recent years, and rightfully so. For the first time since early last decade, the Cubs organization appears to be heading in the right direction.

A system that has been known for it’s pitching prospects has begun developing position players. The Cubs have depth in their system. And for proof, one only has to look at the 2009 season down on the farm.

Tim Wilken began the morning session by saying after he returns home to Florida (from the convention); he will get back to work scouting players for the June draft.

Andrew Cashner (first round pick in 2008) and Brett Jackson (first round pick in 2009) talked about their draft day experiences.

Cashner described the draft as a “crap shoot.” He acknowledged the fact he was projected to be a first round pick … but “you never know.” Cashner figured he should watch the draft. Cashner spent the day with is family and watched the Cubs take him with the 19th overall pick … the second time the Cubs drafted the right-hander (29th round of the 2007 draft).

Brett Jackson jokingly said he did basically the same as Cashner before admitting he wanted to have nothing to do with his family on draft day. Jackson explained he is very close with his family but he and his father watched the draft in an office (in his house) away from the others.

Jackson described draft day as “terrible and magnificent” at the same time.

Brett Jackson was expecting some sort of phone call before he received one. With the Cubs on the clock and ten seconds left, he thought, “Brett Jackson is not going to be a Cub.” When he was picked he admitted he was shocked the Cubs took him. Jackson added being drafted by the Cubs was wonderful for him and his family.

Tim Wilken explained the biggest difference between drafted, as a baseball player compared to basketball and football is the amount of time it takes to get to the big leagues.

The Cubs draft decisions are based on projections. Wilken added in the early rounds it is about taking the best athlete available. As the draft progresses they might switch to positions of need then flip-flop back and forth until the conclusion of the draft.

James Adduci is from the Chicago area and enjoys being with the Cubs’ organization. He admitted he has family and friends that are White Sox fans. Adduci has two buddies that told him if he every plays at Wrigley they would watch in one of the nearby bars … they would not go inside the Friendly Confines.

Oneri Fleita joked, “Well at least that will save you taxes on tickets.”

Players are under constant criticism and a lot of pressure. Andrew Cashner and Brett Jackson were asked how they handle it.

Brett Jackson appears to be a very confident young man … and sure of his abilities. Jackson answered the criticism question by saying, “I like playing baseball.” Jackson wants to prove people wrong and prove them right at the same time.

Andrew Cashner explained as a pitcher there is always a lot of pressure and expectations … he deals with it all of the time. Cashner, like Jackson, wants to prove people wrong.

Welington Castillo spoke about the Cubs academy in the Dominican Republic (more on Dominican Baseball below).

Castillo said the Cubs have two very nice fields that they can play on year round. The Cubs provide a full staff for the players and Castillo added, “We play a lot of dominos and eat really good food.”

Oneri Fleita jokingly added, “That is good, make them think we are producing domino players that eat good food.” One can clearly see the excellent relationship Fleita has with the players.

The Ricketts family (Tom and Todd) is accompanying Oneri Fleita to the Dominican Republic in the coming week. The family wants to see their facilities and will also attend a couple of winter ball games in the area.

The Cubs have stressed to Welington Castillo the importance of learning English. Castillo has worked extremely hard at learning the language … and has made tremendous progress. The Cubs feel a catcher must be able to communicate in Spanish and English with pitchers.

Brett Jackson and Andrew Cashner played in multiple levels last season. Cashner described his jump from High-A (Daytona) to Double-A (Tennessee) as not a big deal. Cashner figures a .300 hitter will eventually get into the Hall of Fame, so he simply doesn’t worry about them.

After Cashner was promoted, he worked on throwing breaking balls in fastball counts, commanding his fastball and throwing first pitch strikes.

Brett Jackson spent 10 days in Rookie Ball after he was drafted. Jackson said he had just gotten settled in with his host family in Boise when he was called up to Peoria. Jackson described his teammates in Peoria as “great guys.”

Jackson admitted there was an adjustment to the pitching at each level … but he seemed to handle it just fine. Jackson prefers wood bats to metal but the main thing for him is to win and have fun.

James Adduci acknowledged winter ball in Mexico was a good experience. He said two of the toughest parts were figuring out where he was staying and what he could eat.

Adduci played with older guys in Mexico … players in the 30s. Vinny Castilla was one of his teammates and he mentioned that he asked the veterans a lot of questions. Adduci wanted to pick up as much as he could from players with obviously more experience.

Oneri Fleita and Tim Wilken discussed the depth in the Cubs’ system. The Cubs have several position players that could end up paying dividends. The Cubs have built up, what was once a weak system, through the draft and international signings.

Fleita said there are a lot of hitters in the Cubs system.

At shortstop there is quite a bit of depth … Hak-Ju Lee, Starlin Castro and Ryan Flaherty. Michael Brenly had a good season … as well as Logan Watkins. In regards to on base percentage, Fleita pointed out there are not a lot of swing and miss guys … and they are adapting to a wood bat. Fleita added the hitting philosophy in the Dominican Republic is “Hit, run and throw your way off the island.”

Oneri Fleita also mentioned Darwin Barney, Robinson Chirinos and Matt Camp by name while discussing the depth in the system.

The reason the Cubs feel their system has improved is they have built continuity in the system … due to the fact the same personnel has been in place for several years.

Tim Wilken added that the Cubs are not against on base percentage. They just stress competitive at bats with their scouts. Wilkins explained that after players settle down and mature they will be able to recognize pitches better … once that happens the OBP will increase. Wilken used Robinson Chirinos as an example.

The Cubs system is full of left-handed bats. According to Fleita, it is because Lou Piniella wanted to get more left-handed … of course he was joking (and the attempt at humor was not received too well).

Wilken stated that a team couldn’t force the draft. In other words, they cannot draft a player just because he hits right-handed or left-handed. That runs in cycles and most teams would prefer to draft switch hitters.

As for the pitching prospects on the farm, Fleita said, “Can never have enough pitching.” Fleita added the Cubs are expecting 16 homegrown players to begin the year at Iowa … 10 of those 16 players should be pitchers.

Fleita specially mentioned Hung-Wen Chen, Justin Bristow, Chris Carpenter and Trey McNutt (32nd round pick in the 2009 draft. Upper 90s fastball, hard slider, throws a lot of strikes) as good examples of their depth.

Oneri Fleita proudly stated the Cubs signed only two six-year minor league free agents this winter and both will be in big league camp … the Cubs did not ink one six-year minor league free agent for the minor league teams. A big improvement over past years …

Fleita discussed the difference between Starlin Castro and Hak-Ju Lee. Fleita pointed out they also have athletic shortstops in Darwin Barney, Ryan Flaherty and Junior Lake. Fleita said the biggest difference between Castro and Lee is that Lee is a lefty. They are very similar players. Lee is extremely fast (Lee is an 80 runner on the 20-80 scouting scale) and Castro has more power. As for their arms, it is “splitting hairs.”

The Cubs will have a very athletic middle infield if they both work out. As Oneri Fleita said, “It would be a good problem to have to figure out which would one play second base.”

There is no timetable set on when Lee and Castro will be called up … but both will be pushed. Starlin Castro will be in big league camp this spring, which will give Lou Piniella and his staff a chance to evaluate him.

Brett Jackson appreciated the reception he received over the weekend. From the opening ceremonies on he could tell there is a lot of passion for the Cubs. All of the enthusiasm from the convention fired up Jackson. He is itching to put the cleats back on. He added, “Gosh darn I wish (spring training) started next week.” Jackson then admitted, “I’m glad I was able to come here and see how insane you people are.”

The upcoming season will be Brett Jackson’s first full year in pro-ball … and he is a little excited.

Oneri Fleita was asked where he thought the players on the panel would start the year. Fleita said, “That’s why we have spring training.” All will probably start the year in Double-A or Triple-A rosters.

Andrew Cashner will be in big league camp and he will determine where he begins the year. Fleita switched gears for a minute. He said now its all about having success. It is easier to move a player up that send one down … it messes with a player’s confidence.

Brett Jackson will be in big league camp as well but will more than likely start the year in Daytona. James Adduci has “earned the right” to begin the year in Iowa according to Fleita.

The Cubs are hoping to start Welington Castillo at Triple-A. Fleita pointed out that he has to stay focused and keep his head on. Castillo is one phone call away from the big leagues … the Cubs just added him to the 40-man roster. Fleita said Castillo must remember it is catch first, defense first, hitting second.

Baseball in the Dominican

The final session of Day Two of the Cubs Convention had a Down on the Farm feel … for obvious reasons. Oneri Fleita hosted the session that featured Esmailin Caridad, Welington Castillo and Jose Serra (Cubs Latin American Coordinator).

Welington Castillo played a big part in the Smokies (Double-A) making it to the Southern League Championship. Fleita complimented Castillo on how hard he has worked, as well as how far he has come in a short time, learning English.

Esmailin Caridad is working hard on his English … but is a little behind Castillo. Caridad is fluent in Japanese and Spanish. Caridad spent five years in Japan playing ball and has been in America for only two years. He said (in English) maybe in two more years his English will be better.

Esmailin Caridad communicates with his Romanian wife in Japanese

Caridad appears to be self-consensus about his English. Fleita told him not to worry about it right now … just keep throwing strikes and keep Mr. Lou Piniella happy.

Players at the Cubs Dominican Academy spend an hour and a half each day learning English.

Welington Castillo shared a story about his first game in Peoria. It was 29 degrees and snowing. When he saw the snow he remembered thinking, “Oh my God, what is this.” As for playing in the weather, Castillo could not feel his fingers of toes. He recalled thinking, “Oh my God, how can I catch.”

Jose Serra explained there is a lot of investigation that goes into making sure kids are who they say they are. It takes from two to four weeks to verify age and make sure it is okay to sign the player.

Oneri Fleita told the story about them converting Carlos Marmol from catcher to pitcher. He said they try to do everything they can to give kids a chance to play over here. Another example is Robinson Chirinos. He was a middle infielder before switching to catcher last year.

On the same day Fleita convinced Randy Wells to drop being a catcher and switch to pitching, he had a conversation with Chirinos about switching to catcher. They feel Chirinos is similar to Henry Blanco, except he can hit. Blanco did not start catching until 25 … Chirinos turned 25 last June.

At the end of the day, they want players that can help the Cubs win.

Welington Castillo was asked about Ryne Sandberg. Castillo said Sandberg is a great person; he likes to teach and is willing to help his players learn. Castillo described Sandberg as a hard worker.

Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez are currently at the Cubs’ academy in the Dominican working out preparing for Spring Training. Soriano and Ramirez help take care of the players at the Cubs’ academy … and Soriano took Caridad in last season when he was promoted to the big leagues. Soriano would not allow him to stay at a hotel.

The Baseball in the Dominican session provided a glimpse of what it takes for players to come from another country and play baseball in America. Oneri Fleita takes a lot of pride in his job and appears to really care about his players.


Recaps of the 2010 Cubs Convention

The 26th Annual Cubs Convention – January 14 – 16, 2011

Quote of the Day

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow." - Albert Einstein