Jason McLeod joined David Kaplan and Mark Carman during The David Kaplan Show (720 WGN) last Wednesday night to discuss several of the Cubs’ prospects and the state of the Cubs’ farm system.
Jason McLeod talked about the tremendous season that Javier Baez turned in and the work he still has in front of him. Kris Bryant has a chance to stick at third base, but he has the arm to play right field. And speaking of third basemen, Mike Olt is not going to play ball this winter while the Cubs try to figure out how much affect the concussion he suffered had on his season.
On the pitching front, there are a couple of starting pitchers in the system that could help the big league team in the near future as well as a lot of interesting bullpen arms.
David Kaplan: The Cubs are champions, unfortunately it is at the Florida State League level, but that is better than not being champions at the Florida State League level.
Mark Carman: We’ll take it.
DK: We’ll take it.
MC: Better than nothing.
DK: I mean for how many years did we hear? We’ve got this decent prospect and that decent prospect and that’s about it. Now they’ve got a farm system that I’ve seen one ranking that has them has high as two. Most have them pretty much top five. I saw one that had them sixth and the future appears to be bright. But the future is down the road a bit. And you’ve got to be patient on this rebuild. There is no other choice. I said this yesterday. I was watching on the elliptical the 2004; Four Days in October when the Red Sox came from three down to comeback and beat the Yankees. And I watched that and they had to get rid of the Curse of the Bambino and all of this other nonsense. They hadn’t seen nothing to they come to Chicago and everything else that has gone on in this franchise. Holy smokes. We’ve waited 105 years. What the hell is two or three more? I’d rather build it the right way so I watch a decade of really good success than some flash in the pan, one-year and try like 07 and 08 or 03 and not get there and then suck again.
MC: I remember a Cubs Convention, back when I was producing your show. Asked Jody Davis, I know we have a guest and we’re going to get to him in a second. Asked Jody Davis, who was a manager in the minors at the time, do you guys have a plan where each team is kinda coached the same way, sort of a Cubs, quote, way? (Responding as if he was Jody Davis) No, we don’t really do it like that. It really didn’t seem like it was a thought, they were just kinda out there.
DK: Well, there is now and the guy that puts the whole thing together works with Theo and Jed, he’s Vice President of Player Development and Scouting, he makes the picks. He is Jason McLeod and he joins us now on WGN. Jason, how are you doing tonight?
Jason McLeod: I’m doing good Kap and hope you guys are good. Real quickly before we get into, a quick funny story about 2004. I think a lot of people, a lot of Red Sox fans, probably say, ‘Hey, I called the comeback.’ But I actually did after game three. One of your colleagues, that writes for the USA Today, Bob Nightengale, was who I told this to after game three. And he actually wrote about that story in the next week’s paper. So he confirmed that I called the comeback after game three. It’s a pretty cool story.
DK: You did?
JM: I did! I liked our pitching matchups if we could win game four. I kinda laid it out for him after game three. The funny thing is that he had already filed his column for that week which was to be another Yankees’ story about the Yankees moving onto the World Series. So, his next week’s column he actually started it with the conversation he had with me calling the comeback. I have that on file.
DK: What’s funny ..
MC: You should …
DK: … Is one of the guys you work with, Jed Hoyer, said to me that I will be real honest with you. (Quoting Jed Hoyer) When we were down three, fully did not think we were coming back. I just said, please let us win one. I just don’t want to listen for ten years how the Yankees swept us.
JM: I’ll tell you, I was sitting with Theo in the scout seats as we were getting pummeled. It was about 19-8 or something and he is showing me these random emails that he was getting from fans, just eviscerating him (laughs). He was like, these are the emails I’m getting during game three of the ALCS, Jas. I was just like, oh my goodness. So, quickly it turned around and the rest is history.
DK: Yeah, then you win the World Series. It’s amazing. That is what sports is. When you start making plans, life happens. So you never know what can happen. Now the Cubs, at the Major League level, we understand it is a process. It was a full scale rebuild, a full scale building as Theo likes to say. But the Cubs at the minor league level are having some success. You were down there, the Cubs win the Florida State League, let’s start right there. How did Kris Bryant look? How did C.J. Edwards look? I mean, these are some of the guys that we’re counting on, correct?
JM: Yeah. It was a great story with that team. Great clubhouse and as a team they played wonderfully the whole second half. Some of the names and guys that you are hearing about in the prospect rankings and so forth, what made that especially fun for all of us, is that those guys really performed and they performed late in the push to the playoffs, and they performed during the playoffs. Going down there and watching them it was really fun to see. It makes you feel really good and excites you of course about the future. Of course, we know that this is A-ball still, but to see the potential for impact and the upside and the tools. And to watch those tools play out on the field with the ability to execute and the ability to show skill level with those tools, it makes it exciting for all of us.
DK: Before we ask you about more players. Mark was telling a story, a little earlier, about Jody Davis doing the show with me at the convention, this is before you guys ever came here, and Mark said to him, ‘Hey Jody, is there a Cubs Way? Do you teach at Boise the same way you teach at Peoria, the same way you teach at Tennessee, the same way you teach at Iowa? He’s like, no we pretty much don’t do that. We just play.’ And, it’s not that way now. For people listening, what does it mean to have a Cubs Way? And what kind of standards do you set for these guys personally? Like a player plan.
JM: I don’t want to overblow the Cubs Way thing, and I know it’s gotten talked about a lot. And I also do not want to put that on anyone who was here before us. I think all clubs talk about trying to instill their philosophy into the organization and how they are going to teach and so forth. But we really wanted to bring it to the forefront and how we are going to communicate it down to the staff and down to the players from our Major League staff down. From that first organizational meeting, when we got here, to see the Major League staff completely invested in everything that was going into this manual that we were putting together. They are putting their time and effort into it. Some of the breakout sessions that we had on baserunning, fielding, all of these things. Everybody saw right away the importance of it. Everybody had input into what we were going to put into the manual. So there was not only a buy in, but everyone was invested in it. Figuring and deciding that this is who we are going to be as an organization, this is the way we are going to play. These are our truths as we go forward and to also understand that it is malleable, it changes from year to year if we think there is better ways to do things. So, I think it is just more of the constant communication between levels, between staff members. The baserunning that Dale and his staff preach up here in Wrigley Field is the exact same baserunning that we are preaching at out Dominican Academy. Just so everyone is on the same page. Every player gets an individual player plan and we go through the strengths and weaknesses with him as an individual. What his individual skill set is and we try to turn whatever weaknesses that player has into strengths. It allows for open communication between player and staff. It also allows for constant communication where players hopefully never feel like they don’t know what’s going on. If they move from a level to a level, they won’t go from Daytona to Tennessee and there is something different happening on the field, like their taking infield differently, their bunt plays are run differently. So, none of that will be happening and like I said there is constant communication with players and the staffs are all on the same page.
DK: We’re talking with Jason McLeod of the Chicago Cubs about the minor league system. Kris Bryant, specifically, second pick overall, so you believe in him wholeheartedly. I mean you leave a lot of good players on the table when you take a guy like this, pay him an exceptionally big signing bonus, over $6 million. Cubs’ fans say, okay, he .333 there, he tore it up at Boise. What is his timetable? When would you like to see Kris Bryant, either playing third or right field, at Wrigley?
JM: He is going to go to the fall league this fall. It is going to be a good challenge for him, playing against some older players with Double-A and possibly Triple-A experience, so that will be a good test for him. It is really going to be up to him to let us know when he is ready. It will be a consistency in his approach in his at bats and how he handles that. I think internally we have an idea of how we see his progress going over the next one to two years, but ultimately the player is going to decide by how he goes out and performs and how he put checks in the boxes of his individual player plan. A good, somewhat problem, if you want to call it that it that we have some pretty interesting third basemen in the organization right now. Hopefully, we will have to make some tough decisions. With Kris, we certainly want to give him every opportunity to stay at third base. He is a tall, rangy, athletic guy who can run surprising well when you watch him go from first to third. So, the outfield is certainly an option for him too, and he can throw. He has plus arm strength. So, I think that is going to work itself out as we go into next year. I think the next six months will be a good test for him. See how he handles the fall league and how he handles his first Spring Training coming in February.
MC: Jason, I know you guys want Javier Baez to perhaps get a little more seasoning. But do you think that he could hit right now on the Major League level?
JM: (Pause) I think he would have his at bats, yeah, where he would definitely do some damage, especially on mistakes. I think that also next year, assuming he is in Triple-A, and that time comes when he is in the big leagues there are still some areas he is going to have to work on in terms of his aggressiveness, in terms of hitting with the count and understanding what it is that he wants to do. He has made strides. He is a talented kid who, you don’t put up the numbers he did this year without having pretty special talent to do that playing shortstop. But, I think you can go and watch him and also shake your head at some of the at bats he has too. He’ll be overly aggressive; he’ll chase pitches out of the strike zone. The strikeouts are still somewhat high, so, he has a development path that has him still, in terms of being consistent with his approach from at bat to at bat. He can do some special things, no doubt, but I think he could come up here and do some damage, but I also think that at this age it would be a struggle for him.
DK: When I look at his numbers from the Florida State League he hit .274. He goes up to Double-A and hits .294. He plays 76 games at Daytona and he hits 17 home runs. He plays 22 fewer games at Tennessee, 54 games, hits 20 home runs and drives in almost as many, 57 to 54 runs. That’s eye-popping numbers he put up at Double-A. What was he doing better?
JM: Part of me feels that is was just a rise to the challenge. Being one of the youngest guys in that league, if not the youngest player in the league, pushing him … I wouldn’t say pushing him. He earned that promotion there. So, I think just part of it was rising to the challenge. Feeling like, ‘Hey the spotlight is on me and I’m going to show these guys that I am worthy of it.’ He certainly plays with a chip on his shoulder at times, wants to prove himself. It is hard to explain those types of numbers that he put up because I think you can look historically at guys his age doing what he did in Double-A and in the Southern League, which is a tough league to hit in, and it is, it is rare for sure.
DK: We are talking with Jason McLeod of the Chicago Cubs. Looking at some of the guys that are in this system right now, do you have pitching … I know Theo talks about waves and waves of pitching and he goes we didn’t even have a ripple at the start. Are there any guys that you say ‘I think within a year they can be here and make a contribution at the Major League level’?
JM: A guy like Kyle Hendricks, who this year had just a tremendous season for us between Double-A and Triple-A. I mean to go out and finish with an ERA of 2.00, I think right on the nose, between those two levels, it pretty special. He’s not going to get a lot of the hype and publicity because he is not the mid-90s, the upper-90s stuff guy, but he is a guy who can really pitch. It is an average fastball, but four pitches and all of them for strikes. He can really carve-up a strike zone. We got him in a trade last year, in the Dempster deal. I think he is someone that you could see up here starting ballgames for us in the next year or so. Potentially, we have a left handed pitcher, a starter in Tennessee, who does fall more in the not big velocity, good change-up, strike throwing guy, kinda of in that Raley-Rusin mode, in Eric Jokisch. We do have a lot of interesting bullpen arms that are velocity guys that can miss bats. You’ve seen one up here now with Zac Rosscup getting called up. But we have some interesting bullpen arms. I think that the wave of starting pitching is more in that High-A, A-ball Boise group. In the acquisitions that we have made in trades and in the draft over the last couple of years.
DK: Before we let you go, we talked about Baez. Albert Almora had to be shut down a bit at Kane County but he is going to play I believe, is he going to play in the Fall League as well?
JM: He is, yes.
DK: So you will have Almora there, Soler there, Baez there, Kris Bryant there. Mike Olt is a name that you guys coveted him a year ago, couldn’t get him in a deal, were able to get him this year. What is your take away with where he’s at right now in his career?
JM: Yeah, it was a tough season for Mike. I think he would be the first one to tell you that. Right now the plan with him is to have him not play this winter. I think we’ve mentioned it before. A year ago this was one of the tougher prospects to get in a trade, so now he goes out and has the tough, disappointing season that he had this year and physically he is the dame guy that he was last year, in terms of strength, his ability to play defense, his ability to hit the ball out of the park. There are some mechanical things that he is going to work on this winter. I think we are still trying to determine, he had the concussion last year when he was hit by a pitch last year and so I think we are going to try to determine if that’s had anything to do with vision or anything that may have played a role in that this year. So, we are going to try to figure some of those things out and hopefully he’s a guy that comes into Spring Training, kind of forgotten about or under the radar with the way C.J. Edwards and some of the other guys have performed coming out of that deal. Certainly he is a guy that we are hoping really big things for him and look for a real big bounce back year for him in 2014.
DK: As we let you go, how would you characterize the progress the minor leagues have made since the day that you, Theo, and Jed came to Chicago? Are we 75 percent along the way of rebuilding the minor league system? 50 percent? 100 percent? Where would you say you are?
JM: Without putting a percentage on it, I could tell you that two years later we are pretty happy with the volume that has been injected. We made no secret about trying to get pitching. We’ve gotten pitching back in every deal we’ve made. We drafted volume in the last two drafts. So, I think that most clubs are going to tell you that they feel good about what is in our minor league system. We feel that with the volume of arms that we have acquired, along with what we feel are truly potential impact position players, I think we’ve set the minor league system up pretty good. I know we feel good about it and we are going to continue to work hard to that going forward. Obviously our eyes are on that Major League roster and strengthening that in the next year. The minor league system wise, I say we feel pretty good about what we’ve done in two years.
DK: Jason, appreciate you taking time. See you around the ballpark.
JM: Okay Kap, good talking to you guys.
DK: You too, talk to you soon.