The 2012 Cubs Convention wrapped Sunday with the annual panel focused on the Cubs’ Minor League system. This year’s panel featured six of the Cubs’ top prospects … Brett Jackson, Anthony Rizzo, Junior Lake, Jeff Beliveau, Josh Vitters and Matt Szczur.
Oneri Fleita dropped a little news during the Down on the Farm session. Dae-Eun Rhee will start the season in the Smokies’ rotation (Double-A) … and Robert Whitenack is progressing well after last season’s Tommy John surgery. Whitenack will begin camp on time and will be in the Daytona Cubs’ starting rotation (High Class-A) when the season begins.
The Cubs will also introduce a new video system to their minor league teams that will help them be more prepared to compete and improve.
In the Father-Son Connection, it was easy to see how Shawon Dunston, Jr., Michael Brenly and Daniel Lockhart became so grounded at a young age. Not only did their fathers play the game, but along with their mothers they installed the right values in their sons … and in the Shawon Dunston’s case, he has not let up.
First up on the final day of the convention was Down on the Farm … Down on the Farm
One of the more interesting sessions of the Cubs Convention has been Sunday’s Down on the Farm where several of the prospects in the system get to experience the Cubs Convention first hand and talk about their experiences and progress in the minor leagues.
Over the last six years, the Down on the Farm session has grown. What was once in one of the smallest rooms of the old hotel occupied the Grand Ballroom during this year’s convention. By the time the session started, the largest room in the Hilton Chicago was more than three-quarters full.
Not only does the Cubs’ new regime see and recognize the importance of the minor league system … the fan base does as well.
This year’s session featured six of the top prospects in the Cubs’ system along with Jason McLeod, Tim Wilken and Oneri Fleita.
Brett Jackson, Anthony Rizzo, Matt Szczur, Josh Vitters, Jeff Beliveau and Junior Lake all handled themselves quite well in front of the large crowd. Junior Lake was rather quiet throughout the session and the only question he answered was one directed at him in Spanish by Oneri Fleita. Lake responded in Spanish and while he is able to communicate in English, it was clear to see he was not comfortable in the situation.
Brett Jackson is simply put, California Cool. Jackson’s maturity from two years ago (last time was in the Down on the Farm Session) was like night and day … his cocky confidence has been replaced by a swagger that most big league ballplayers possess.
Anthony Rizzo was impressive as well with the way he handled himself. Rizzo talked a lot about having fun and not letting the little things bother you.
Due to the way the Down on the Farm session is structured, most of the information is response to questions from the audience. Here are the highlights of Sunday’s Down on the Farm session in bullet point format:
- Tim Wilken made sure to point out how well Jeff Beliveau pitched last season on a few different occasions. Beliveau did not walk one left handed batter last year in 30 innings. Wilken said that Beliveau has a swing and miss fastball, one he can throw by hitters.
- Jason McLeod said he should be able to get up to speed with the Cubs system rather quickly. He just went through the same learning curve two years ago with the Padres and that experience should help this transition. McLeod is looking forward to getting to Mesa so he can learn the players. McLeod admitted he’s been leaning heavily on Tim Wilken and Oneri Fleita right now.
- Oneri Fleita mentioned how well the Cubs minor league teams played last year and made sure everyone knew that most of those teams were the youngest in their respective leagues. Fleita credited Wilken with the success in the system because he was drafting high character guys that care more about winning with the team than the name on the back of the jersey.
- Tim Wilken admitted he is looking forward to all of the changes of the new regime. Wilken said it was a relief when he found out he would only be responsible for amateur scouting. Wilken thinks he was the last person in the game in charge of both professional and amateur scouting.
- Brett Jackson described his transition to minor league ball as easy and credited his coaches, Oneri Fleita and the organization for making it that way. Jackson said he is lucky to have moved so quickly.
- Robert Whitenack would have probably made it to the big leagues last year according to Fleita if his season did not end abruptly with Tommy John surgery. Whitenack’s rehab is progressing well and will begin the season in the starting rotation of the Daytona Cubs (High Class-A).
- Josh Vitters feels he made a lot of strides last year. He feels the reason why is a byproduct of not only maturing as a player but as a person. Vitters gave the Smokies’ hitting coach, Mariano Duncan, quite a bit of credit last year.
- Anthony Rizzo said he was glad he was drafted out of High School, because he did not want to go to school.
- Oneri Fleita responded to a question about a lack of fundamentals at the big league level and if they are trying to correct the problem in the minor leagues. Fleita assured everyone that the Cubs are pounding the fundamentals in the minors. They are constantly working on bunting, throwing to the right base, the right way to run the bases, situational hitting, etc. They start working on them in Spring Training and continue throughout the season.
- The mental aspect of the game is just as important as the physical part. The Cubs have hired a Sports Psychologist and have given the players great resources to help deal with the mental part of playing professional ball.
- Brett Jackson said learning how to deal with the mental part is very important. There are so many successes and failures in the game and the player has to learn how to deal with both extremes. Jackson admitted he works a lot on the psychological part of the game. He reads books and has spoken with the team psychologist. It is real important to him to learn how to deal with a 0-for-4 night with four strikeouts as well as a big night at the plate. Jackson said, “If you don’t deal with it [mental aspect of the game] it will eat you up.”
- Jeff Beliveau explained that the best thing to do is stay positive and the best thing about baseball is if you have a bad game, there is another one the next day. That is the reason Beliveau prefers relieving to starting. He did not like waiting four days in between outings.
- Anthony Rizzo was asked what advice he could give his teammates about playing in the Major Leagues and the fine line between the majors and minors. Rizzo said, “Have fun and smile a lot.” Then responded with it is not a fine line between the majors and minors, it is the same game we played in little league, travel ball, high school and college. Rizzo added, “Don’t’ stress the little things.”
- The players’ facilities at Wrigley Field are certainly a challenge. Jason McLeod admitted he was pretty amazed when he saw how little they have for the players at Wrigley. McLeod said it is pretty hard for the players to be able to prepare prior to and during a game with what is currently at Wrigley. He said he has seen renovation plans for the players’ facilities at Wrigley and he thinks it will help moving forward.
- The players admitted they do not play attention to prospect rankings and in fact Matt Szczur did not know who Keith Law and John Sickels are. Szczur said they cannot focus on those rankings and what they say. That is a part of the mental game that all of them work on. Brett Jackson chimed in at that point and said, “If you get caught in the past or in the future, you are going to struggle. It is important to stay in the present, where you are. It is one pitch at a time.”
- The Cubs do not plan on trying to reinvent the wheel in the minor leagues in terms of player development. McLeod indicated they have to come up with a plan in order to get the most of the player’s ability.
- The Cubs will have a new video system throughout the minor leagues. This will enable the players to study how they have been pitched in the past and will also help them in the future because they will be able to create a library on how a certain pitcher may have worked them in the past. Oneri Fleita said the player be able to prepare better and credited the Ricketts family for the financial support for the addition.
- Brett Jackson has learned a little bit of Spanish and told the story about being in the outfield with a Korean ballplayer in right and a Dominican ballplayer in left and the fact he had to know how to call plays in both languages.
- After a long question to Junior Lake from Oneri Fleita in Spanish and Lake’s response that was also in Spanish, Otto asked Brett Jackson to translate … and he did. Jackson said that Lake thinks Brett Jackson is the greatest player is ever played with, that his Spanish is great ant that he is his best friend. The room erupted with laughter …
- Oneri Fleita is looking forward to see Junior Lake take the next step in his development this year. Fleita pointed out that he is facing the same challenges as Starlin Castro did and they are going to try sending him down the same path as Castro … and hope for similar results.
- As for Minor League assignments when the year starts, Oneri Fleita said they have a pretty good idea right now what level each player will begin the season. Fleita explained that they always want to be erring on the side of conservative when assigning players to a level, especially to start a season. It is always better to start a player a level lower and promote than to start a player one level to high and have to demote. That phone call can hurt a player’s confidence. Fleita explained a lot thought goes into the process because one change and one position (a trade for instance) can have a ripple effect throughout the organization.
- According to Jason McLeod, where the Cubs pick in a draft will not change their draft philosophy or the player they will choose. McLeod admitted that even on Sunday, the Cubs have three to four guys they are looking at they could use the sixth pick on in June’s draft. They will look at certain things in the spring and make adjustments based on the new info they receive … but more than likely it will be one of the three to four players they are looking at now that will be selected in June’s draft.
- The final question of the day was about the Cubs’ first round pick in last June’s draft … Javier Baez. Wilken described Baez’s bat as explosive and thinks he has a real chance to be a middle of order hitter at the big league level. Wilken also feels Baez has a chance to stick at short but they will let Baez dictate where he plays as he moves through the system … again, that is scout for speak for as long as he can perform as short, he will stay but Baez’s play could end up forcing a position change.
The Cubs minor league system has improved in recent years, not only in the talent on the field but they have also added players that appear to have the aptitude and make-up to become big league ballplayers. The Cubs system, for the most part, is missing impact talent. With that said, Brett Jackson and Anthony Rizzo handled themselves on a different level than the rest of the panel. There is a maturity and a calm confidence that those two displayed Sunday morning that was good to see from Cubs’ prospects.
The Father-Son Connection
Wayne Messmer hosted the final session of the weekend, the Father-Son Connection featuring Bob and Michael Brenly, Shawon Dunston and Shawon Dunston, Jr. and Keith and Daniel Lockhart.
The group discussed how it is to play baseball with a recognizable last name and the pros and cons of having a father and son connection to the Cubs. It was easy to see how proud each father was of their son, not only in the words they used but with their mannerisms.
Bob Brenly started the hour off by saying there are certain pressures put on young players with familiar last names, even the ones that have a father with a career .249 batting average. Michael explained he is the one that ends up putting pressure on him and without his family’s support he would not be playing ball.
Keith Lockhart is a scout for the Cubs … and the first player he signed was his son Daniel. The Cubs selected the 19-year old infielder in the tenth round of last June’s draft. Keith went into detail that the Cubs asked him to write a scouting report on his son. It took him over three hours because he had to be as objective as possible. In hindsight, Keith thinks he might have been a little hard on his son.
Each of the players has not found out where they will report when the season begins. Daniel Lockhart explained that is one of the tough parts of minor league ball, not knowing where you will start the season. Shawon Dunston, Jr. is looking forward to getting to Spring Training so he can perform for the Cubs and earn a spot on a roster. Brenly thinks his next logical step would be Double-A Tennessee.
Shawon Dunston has tried to instill in is son to respect the game and to act the same way if he strikes out three times or hits a home run. Dunston admitted he cried after his son was drafted by the Cubs (he was very complimentary about the Cubs organization throughout the hour). He wants the best for his son … a better career than he had, better at the game than he was … but his son does not believe that is what his father actually wants for him.
Dunston sounds like he really keeps his son in line. After Dunston, Jr. received his signing bonus he wanted to buy a car. His father would not let him and told him that he is 18 years old and all he has right now is a name. Dunston explained he is hungrier than his son. His son had a silver spoon and is better educated.
Shawon Dunston, Jr. was committed to Vanderbilt to play baseball. Then the Cubs drafted him and gave him a high signing bonus. Dunston had told his son he would be going to college but when the Cubs offered the large bonus they could not turn down playing for the Cubs … and not because of the money but because of the opportunity.
Dunston explained that he has lived very comfortably because of the Chicago Cubs and he did not feel his son could turn down the opportunity. The only two teams that Dunston, Sr. would have let Dunston, Jr. sign with instead of go to college … the Cubs and the Giants.
The Chicago Cubs have a College Scholarship program for players they sign out of High School that will allow the player to forego college in the immediate future and play professional ball. The program will pay for the player’s education after his days on the baseball field are over. The player has two years after he is done playing to use the money for his education. Keith Lockhart explained the program on Sunday and said it helped swing Daniel’s mother towards him playing ball now and postponing his education.
The Father-Son connection was a unique view into second generation baseball families.
The 2012 Cubs Convention had a very familiar feel to it. The location was the same, the basic order of the sessions was the same, the vender area pretty much looked the same, Kitty O’Shea’s was packed with many of the same faces and it was still difficult to move in the old hotel because of all of the autograph hounds.
But what made this year’s convention different than in year’s past was the message and information from the Chicago Cubs … and it is about time.
2012 Cubs Convention
Day One of the 2012 Cubs Convention … Welcome to Theo Fest
Day Two of the 2012 Cubs Convention … Behind the Scenes with Theo Epstein
Day Two of the 2012 Cubs Convention … Meet Cubs Baseball Management and the Coaches’ Den
Day Two of the 2012 Cubs Convention … The Cubs Newest Hall of Famer, Scouting and Changes to Wrigley Field
Check out the CCO’s Facebook page later in the week for photos from the 2012 Cubs Convention
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