Jason McLeod joined Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette during Power Alley (MLB Network Radio/XM Radio) on Thursday morning. The Cubs’ Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development talked in depth about ‘The Cubs Way‘ and the entire organization.
Jason McLeod sees Javier Baez as a shortstop and Junior Lake will likely see a majority of his playing time at third base during the upcoming season but the Cubs will continue moving him around defensively … and the Cubs are hoping the adjustments Brett Jackson made to his swing this winter translate into better production when the games begin.
Mike Ferrin: Just over a year into building of the Chicago Cubs, Vice President of Scouting and Player Development, I’m sorry, Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development for the Cubs is a guy that has been on our show several times and we always like speaking with Jason McLeod. Jason, Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette, how are you this morning?
Jason McLeod: Great guys, good to be back on with you.
Jim Duquette: Thanks a lot for your time Jason as always. I’m curious. You guys have a year under your belt like Mike said. And you talk about it’s not as easy to take your system and jump it as high as what I am reading in some of these publications have talked about with you guys. Did you guys have that big of a year man, you should be going to Theo for a huge raise.
JM: (laughs) Yea, let me have you guys call him for that for me. (laughs) No, it’s been a year obviously with a lot of the acquisitions that Theo and Jed have made in trade and looking at our draft last year with what we did with the pitching and obviously taking Almora at the top and some of our international signings. I think we really put an emphasis on trying to build up the system and trying to bring impact and add impact players to the system.
MF: I don’t want to try and get on the throwing cold water on anything but I’m sure you have probably gotten the sense that there is some similarities between fans on the North Side of Chicago and in Boston and when they get excited about stuff, they get super excited. When you have a lot of the best talent that you have at A-ball, is there a way you can that you kind of temper enthusiasm for people or do you want them to be enthusiastic to this level?
JM: Obviously you always want your fans to be excited about the future and what is happening in the organization. But at the same time we understand the process of it all. We’ve been through it and we know that development has to take place and that we’ve got a plan in place for all of our guys and we also know the attrition rate that happens. No matter how excited you get about these players at the lower levels you know that not all are going to pan out. So you take a volume approach and try to put as many high upside, high impact players as you can. You let them go out and play and develop and hopefully you do get a few of those guys up there that can significantly impact the Major League team.
JD: Right. I am curious your thoughts on now that you’ve seen Javier Baez and obviously he’s been playing shortstop. Does he profile out for you guys as a shortstop, Jason, or do you look at him potentially at some other position at the Major League level with Castro there?
JM: I see him as a shortstop. I think he surprised a lot of people this past year, myself included, in the way he plays the position and how instinctive he is at the position. He’s got the soft hands. Of course he’s got plenty, plenty of arm strength and this kid just really plays the game slow, in a good way. He just slows everything down on the field. He can make all of the plays. I see no reason why he can’t play a Major League shortstop. If we get to that point in the next year or two where we have to make that decision, it’s going to be a great, a great discussion and a great problem to have.
MF: Talking to Jason McLeod, the Senior VP of Scouting and Player Development for the Cubs. The other two guys that certainly have gotten people excited are Jorge Soler, and you kinda mentioned him as the big international signing, and Albert Almora, your first round pick from this last year. With Soler first of all, once you got him into the system and once you saw, was he more advanced than you guys anticipated?
JM: You know it is kind of a strange deal because a lot of clubs got to see him play when he was down in the Dominican, I think last November, two Novembers ago. And he was going to everybody’s academy and putting on a really good show. Then he had the break when he did not play for a while until we signed him. Then he goes out and plays part of the summer. When you think about how long it had been since he faced live pitching, getting acclimated to the states and everything that involves. We were very happy to see how he went about his business on a day to day basis and his approach at the plate. So, I don’t want to say we were too surprised because he played so well last November when he was still a free agent but certainly we were real happy with what he did. Bringing him into instructional league and seeing and working with him over the winter, we are really excited about now he’s been in the states and gotten acclimated, or more acclimated, we are really looking forward to seeing what a full year can do for him under his belt.
JD: Jason, I wanted to ask you about Junior Lake. He’s a kid that I’ve heard a lot about. I think he’s a Dominican kid if I’m not mistaken …
JM: Uh-huh …
JD: … and I was talking to a couple of scouts that saw him recently and really liked him. One or two liked him as a shortstop and one or two actually thought he would be good in the outfield, as a centerfielder. When do you guys decide, first off, where do you see him, obviously in comparison to like a Baez as example? Two just kind of a general question, when do you decide you feel like he should be in a better position and at what level do you try to make that move?
JM: I think as guys start getting closer to the Major Leagues you are open. We always try to profile them out and see how they can most significantly impact the Major League team and really what is best for the player himself. A lot of times that is going to happen at that Double-A level, sometimes at Triple-A and with Junior, he is a big, physical kid. He has been playing short and he is one of those bigger, taller, like Hanley Ramirez-size shortstops but he has also played a lot of third base for us. And actually this year in the Winter League, he had a pretty good Winter League; they exposed him to the outfield there too. We’ve seen him run around out in centerfield. He is so athletic, which is great. I think we have some options with him and certainly he’s got the versatility. Right now, I believe the plan going forward into ’13 is to let him move around a little bit. I say his primary position is probably going to be third base but he will get exposure to the outfield and he will also still take some reps at shortstop.
MF: Jason McLeod of the Cubs with us here on Power Alley. Jason when you guys came in, obviously you guys brought in the talent you did in the last calendar year, plus you inherited some from the previous administration and certainly a significant amount of talent. But, to me one of the things that has always stood out is, overall, that you and Jed, both in San Diego and you, Jed and Theo together in Boston, always kind of had a plan place and a, I guess now you would call it ‘The Cubs Way’ so to speak, of how you want to approach things. Can you take us through a little bit, without giving away trade secrets, what the expectations are that you kind of give to players and how you outline it for them throughout the system?
JM: I think it simply comes down to first and foremost getting our staff together collectively. That is the Major League front office, Dale Sveum and the Major League staff and then all of our player development people and our scouts and have an open discussion about who it is we want to be as an organization. How we want to teach, how we want to play the game and really everybody has input into how we are going to develop all of our players. Then that goes into a manual, so to speak, and then once we do that we sit down with each player individually and discuss what his plan is going to be … and it is collaboration too. So that the player takes responsibility of his career and he knows that it’s just not us telling him, hey this is what you are doing; it’s more of a conversation. We really sit down and try to map out what his strengths and weaknesses are and how we feel we want to improve those weaknesses and things he’s going to have to do before he gets moved up. So, it always keeps the communication open. It always allows the player to know where he is and what his standing is, in his own development, and within the organization. For us, it is really getting down to the crux of how we are going to play, how we are going to teach, what our expectations are and being very open in our communication with our players about it.
JD: Jason, I wanted to ask you about Brett Jackson. I know he is at the upper levels and you saw him obviously a little bit at the Major League level. You look at him in terms of what the projection is for him. You see the high strikeouts. I think I saw him making some adjustments this winter with his swing. Do you have any sense on how that has gone? I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to talk to him yet, but that’s obviously something that he needed to do. You are clearly hopeful that will translate …
JM: Yea …
JD: … into better contact.
JM: Absolutely. Brett is such a talented kid in terms of, a talented young man I should say, in terms of what he can physically do on a baseball field. He is that multi-tooled player. Last year certainly in Triple-A and when he got to the big leagues there was a lot of swing and miss going on and Brett was obviously aware of that. He knew that there were some mechanical adjustments that he needed to be made. He went down to Arizona in the fall and Dale was down there working with him and James Rowson and Rob Deer. All of the reports came back very, very positive. Brett was in a very positive and confident state of mind and the swing adjustments have been made. Obviously that is just in a cage setting, so now we are going to come into Spring Training and he’s going to have to take it into the live BPs and hopefully into the game. This is a guy that has a lot of talent and he can do a lot of things defensively, offensively. There is speed, the power is there. He just needs to give himself a chance to make contact to take advantage of it all.
MF: Another moment here with Jason McLeod of the Cubs, their Senior VP of Scouting and Player Development. We have talked a lot about the bats in the system and certainly that’s where people are most excited. I always go back to, I think it was in August last year, when Theo Epstein was having a press conference at Wrigley and he said that we need waves and waves of pitching into the organization. There are a couple of guys in that first wave that are there now. Are there potential starters that could help you as soon as this year or do you look at guys like Pierce Johnson as potentially being another year away. Or Vizcaino if he does stay in the rotation, being another year away?
JM: Well it is always easier to look at the younger guys that don’t have as much history yet, that have the big tools … a big fastball and so forth and to get excited about them. Certainly we are. If you just look at our draft last year, once we took Pierce I think we made a run of about seven straight pitchers and then Theo acquired, I believe, five or six pitchers in trade. So, we are certainly trying to build that up. At the upper levels we did bring up guys last year that got some exposure to the big leagues in Brooks Raley and Chris Rusin. I think when we look at our upper level pitching, we certainly see depth there. I am really hopeful that a couple of those guys will step forward and really take that next leap, if you will. I think there are guys there that could come up and help. When I look at the power, impact potential from us, I think it is probably at the lower levels in A-ball right now.
JD: Jason, I know this time of year, and actually before this, you get a sense of the depth of the upcoming draft. I have heard various reports on it. I always used to hear, it seemed like the scouting directors saying it was a weaker draft every single year. (laughs) I don’t know if that is the case this year or not. What are you hearing?
JM: Yea, same thing you know. I know being a former scouting director myself; you always feel the draft is not strong enough. (laughs) With we are picking this year, number two, we are going to have plenty options up there and we are excited about the players that we are going to be scouting. It is an opportunity for us to add a significant, impact player into the organization. We just got through with our scouting meetings last week. We are excited for that to get going too. So we’ve got Spring Training kicking off, then the college season starts here next Friday. It’s that time of the year. We are really excited about what we feel our options will be at number two and for the rest of the draft.
MF: Jason, before we let you go. I know you guys are goal setters when it comes to the minor leagues. Are there goals you are starting to put in place now, I don’t want to say necessarily for your affiliates, but for the players in the minor leagues? Have you already outlined that with them as they get to Spring Training or before they get to Spring Training?
JM: We sat down with them all at the end of the season last year. We definitely kept in touch with them throughout the fall. We ran a couple of winter strength programs where we had a lot of our players in Mesa in November and January. But, we will have our official sit down meeting with them all individually in Spring Training. I would not say it is outlining goals so much as it is just talking about their plan and their progression and their development. And what we feel like they need to work on in terms of strengthening their weaknesses and what we feel like they need to do to improve and move up.
MF: Jason, we really appreciate your time. It is always good to catch up with you. Enjoy the trip to Arizona. I’m sure you are going to be ready for some warm weather.
JM: Certainly as it is sleeting outside right now (laughs). I am definitely ready to get out …
MF: That’s one of the nicest days in February in Chicago history …
JD: That is a balmy day, there.
JM: It was great talking to you guys.