Day Three of the 2013 Cubs Convention … Down on the Farm

The Cubs minor league system was front and center on Sunday morning at the Cubs Convention with the ever-popular “Down on the Farm” session. VineLine once again hosted the hour-long Q & A that featured Jason McLeod, Brandon Hyde, Joe Bohringer, Josh Vitters and Chris Rusin.

Brandon Hyde replaced Oneri Fleita as the Cubs Director of Player Development and Joe Bohringer joined the Cubs a year ago when the new regime divided Tim Wilken’s old position into two jobs. Wilken was retained as an Assistant to the General Manager and Bohringer was hired as the Cubs Director of Pro Scouting.

The Cubs’ system took several steps forward last year, and while there is still a ways to go, the Cubs have a plan in place of how they are going to build a winning organization.

Down on the Farm

Sunday’s Down on the Farm session has become a staple of the convention and it is truly amazing how much the attendance in that session has grown over the years. It went from one of the smallest meeting rooms at the Hilton to the same room at the Sheraton in which the restoration plans for Wrigley Field were unveiled … even Tom Ricketts and Crane Kenney sat in Sunday’s session for a while.

The VineLine was once again involved in the hour-long Q&A and Dave Otto helped the VineLine’s managing editor, Gary Cohen, host the event. Josh Vitters and Chris Rusin were the only two players on the panel this year and were joined by Jason McLeod (Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development), Brandon Hyde (Director of Player Development) and Joe Bohringer (Director of Pro Scouting).

Gary Cohen began the hour by stating that he feels the organization is heading in the right direction. The Cubs Rookie Development program was a big success and just another indication of how the Cubs are doing the best they can to prepare the players for the Major Leagues. There has been a lot of change throughout the organization since the Ricketts family took over in 2009 and even more last year when Theo Epstein became the Cubs’ President of Baseball Operations. Cohen pointed out with all of the changes in the draft and on the international market it is more important now than ever before that an organization have the right people in place that allow the Cubs to make the best decisions possible in the draft.

This is where the success starts … down on the farm.

Gary Cohen asked the panel to define ‘The Cubs Way’ and to explain exactly how it benefits the organization. Jason McLeod explained it was very important to Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to have the Cubs’ philosophies documented. It is basically a process of how to do things throughout the organization and is a way to hold the players accountable.

Brandon Hyde discussed the reasons behind the Cubs creating the Rookie Development Program. Hyde said they would like to get the players a feel of the city and the field. The Cubs had several seminars for the players as well. One focused on finances, another on what to expect when they make it to the big leagues. It is basically an initiation of what it is going to be like when they make to the big leagues.

Every player in the Cubs’ system has a player development plan. The Cubs focus on three different areas: 1) Physical 2) Fundamental 3) Mental. The individual player’s plan includes the strengths and the weaknesses in each of those areas. They have found this method helps them to communicate with the player about their progress and at the same time it makes each player more accountable. They are also able to use the plans to help determine if a player is ready to be promoted (not necessarily to the big leagues, but a level up in the minors).

The scouting and development team work together to determine whether a pitcher should be a starter or a reliever. Joe Bohringer explained that a pitcher’s mechanics and whether or not he can repeat his delivery will be the first deciding factor on whether or not the pitcher will be a reliever or a starter. The next factors are the pitcher’s frame, repertoire (does he throw enough different pitches to be a starter) and his ability to consistently throw strikes.

Josh Vitters and Chris Rusin were asked what they have been working on this off-season. Vitters said the has been working on his lower body strength that he has had trouble with his endurance over an entire season and he wants to make sure he is ready to play a full year.

Chris Rusin has also been working on his lower body and his core strength. Rusin said he has to cut down on his walks next season, throw strikes and limit his pitch count so he can pitch into the sixth and seventh innings.

The young players admitted they do not try to think about the pressure associated with playing in the big leagues and for the Chicago Cubs. Josh Vitters admitted he is okay with being off “the radar” and he has to stay focused and in the moment. Vitters used the cliché, “One pitch at a time.” Later in the session, Vitters said that he tries not to focus on other people’s expectations of what type of player he should be.

The next question was a hot topic all weekend. What point do the Cubs consider changing a player’s position and what is the organization’s philosophy on doing so?

Jason McLeod thinks that the biggest jump is from High-A to Double-A and once a player is in Double-A he is just a phone call away. When a player reaches Tennessee his role becomes more clear and defined. Brandon Hyde added that they are very careful to not change a player’s position too early. The Cubs want the player to play and gain value. The last thing they want to do is to minimize a player’s value and hurt the player’s development. There is enough for a player to learn early in his professional career and there is no reason to make him learn a new position until he has to in order to benefit the big league team.

As for when the Cubs would decide to convert a position player to pitcher, McLeod said usually if he has a strong arm and there are a lot of swings and misses at the plate.

Brandon Hyde said that Javier Baez is fully recovered from the broken finger he suffered in the Arizona Fall League. Hyde sung Baez’s praises and said his ability is off the charts … and the same can be said about Albert Almora and Jorge Soler.

Albert Almora and Jorge Soler are currently at the Cubs’ facility in Mesa for strength and conditioning camp. Several minor league players are there, including Dan Vogelbach.

Joe Bohringer fielded a question about Arodys Vizcaino and he reiterated what Epstein and Hoyer said over the weekend. The Cubs are not worried about his recovery from Tommy John surgery. Vizcaino was considered one of the top pitching prospects in the game and if he had not been recovering from Tommy John surgery there is no way the Cubs would have been able to acquire him from the Braves. The Cubs used past reports on Vizcaino to make their decision, because he obviously did not pitch last season. The Cubs have the faith in their minor league coaches that they will be able to turn Vizcaino into the pitcher they have projected.

The Cubs having Kane County as their affiliate is huge for the Cubs. McLeod said Kane County will be used for rehabbing Major League players and due to the close proximity to Chicago, the Cubs’ brass will be able to watch the games at Wrigley during the day then go to Kane County at night.

The Cubs installed video camera in each of their minor league affiliates home ballpark last year. The camera is located in centerfield in each of the parks and allows the front office to watch all minor league home games live on their own feed. McLeod pointed out that many times when the camera shows Theo and Jed with their back turned away from the field, they are watching a minor league game.

Brandon Hyde was extremely complimentary of Josh Vitters. Hyde pointed out that Vitters was one of the youngest players in the PCL (Pacific Coast League) last year and the Cubs are excited about the season he put together at the Triple-A level. The Cubs think Vitters made quite a bit of improvement last year both at the plate and in the field.

The Cubs were surprised that Derek Johnson took the job to be the Cubs Minor League Pitching Coordinator. McLeod called Johnson “innovative” and “creative” but cautioned that was at the college level and while they feel he will do a great job there will be a learning curve to pro ball. McLeod explained that the key to building a winning organization is to build up the pitching and they feel “DJ” will help them achieve that goal.

McLeod said that many teams tried to hire Johnson in the past but he was happy at Vanderbilt and turned them down. The Cubs approached Johnson, McLeod called it a “shot in the dark”, and to their surprise he accepted the job. Johnson grew up in Illinois a Cubs’ fan and that is one of the reasons he took the job.

McLeod said the entire staff will collaborate on how they want the pitching structure formed in the minors. Johnson has some very good ideas that will be integrated, including long toss, and McLeod thinks Johnson’s addition will be felt in the minors over the next year.

The panel was asked about their plans with Dan Vogelbach and their plan is simple … they are going to let him play. Hyde explained that Vogelbach is in Arizona working in the Cubs strength and conditioning camp. Vogelbach is really committed to “making his body better.” Hyde added that Vogelbach is extremely athletic, but a big kid. The Cubs are trying to create a middle of the order bat and they feel he has a bright future. (On a side note, one of my sources told me that Vogelbach is extremely committed to shaping up and has lost nearly 40 pounds this off-season).

Plate discipline has historically been a problem for the Chicago Cubs and the panel was asked about what they are doing to change it in the minors. It is a difficult area to teach but the Cubs are fully invested into making a system-wide change. They have to get the players to buy into getting a good pitch to hit, their pitch, and drive the ball. The Cubs plan on drilling it into the players they must stay in their strike zone and hit their pitch and not expand their zone and swing at a pitcher’s pitch. As Theo Epstein said it is a system wide “epidemic” and the players must buy into their philosophy and get on board.

Additional Notes from Down on the Farm Session

  • Jason McLeod said it should be the Cubs goal for every player in the system to at least have a cup of coffee with the Cubs. McLeod realizes that will never happen but that should still be the goal.
  • The Cubs use many of the different metrics available to evaluate a player.
  • Jason McLeod brought up the rookie program the Cubs held this past week. And pointed out he thought the team did a good job of book-ending the speakers that addressed the group. The week began with Kerry Wood talking to the players about the pressures and expectations associated with playing in the big leagues and the program ended with Mark Prior discussing the same topic on Thursday.

The Sunday minor league session is like night and day compared to where it was seven conventions ago. Dave Otto correctly pointed out that several players that ended up with the Cubs appeared in this session (Jeff Samardzija ,Welington Castillo, Anthony Rizzo) but this session has evolved in so many ways other than just propping up the hottest names in the system. It is really nice to hear that not only is the system a little stronger than a year ago but it is nowhere near where they want it to be and here is how they are going to make it better.

The CCO will post a recap of the Stats Sunday session later in the week. There was a lot of information that is worthy of as much discussion as possible. One quick comment, based on the way Jim Deshaies interacted with Len Kasper, plus his overall knowledge of the game, the Cubs TV broadcasts are not going to skip a beat. JD is great

2013 Cubs Convention Recaps

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