Day Three of the 2014 Cubs Convention: Down on the Farm

After being entertained for an hour by Bobby Dernier, Tim Stoddard, Steve Trout, Jay Johnstone, Rick Sutcliffe, Gary Matthews, Scott Sanderson and Lee Smith talking about the ’84 season, the 2014 Cubs Convention wrapped up with the Sunday staple … Down on the Farm.

Jason McLeod, Jaron Madison, Blake Parker, Justin Grimm, Dave Otto and Smokies’ play-by-play man Mick Gillispie discussed the Cubs’ farm system in the final session of the weekend.

The Cubs are trying to attack the system with volume and there are multiple players that project as impact talent in the big leagues. The front office is trying to structure the system so a constant wave of talent can move through the system and up to Wrigley.

Jason McLeod and Jaron Madison provided updates on several players during the session.

Arodys Vizcaino is not 100 percent healthy yet. Vizcaino threw well in the Dominican and the Cubs are being conservative with his rehab. He is on track to be ready for the start of Spring Training.

The Cubs plan to leave Javier Baez at shortstop “for as long as they can” and they “think that will be a while.” The Cubs could possibly expose him to second and/or third base during Spring Training. The front office will sit down with Rick Renteria and his coaching staff before camp begins to come up with a plan for Baez.

Mike Olt was given a breather this off-season. The Cubs did not want him playing winter ball. They wanted him to take a break and hit the reset button on his career. Olt says he is healthy and is ready to compete for the Cubs’ third base job this spring. Jason McLeod said Olt met with different specialists over the winter and was given different drops for his eyes. McLeod indicated Olt looked good in the batting cages at Northwestern during the Rookie Development Program. McLeod explained the Cubs will know early in camp if Olt is fully recovered and is back to where he was prior to the concussion. Olt’s first live batting practice will tell them a lot.

Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters, two former top prospects, are coming off bad seasons. Jackson and Vitters dealt with injuries all season and in Jackson’s case a lot of adversity. The Cubs front office still believes in both players and they will compete for jobs in Spring Training.

Christian Villanueva had a “hell of a year” according to McLeod and is hands down the best defensive third baseman in the system. Dustin Geiger is one of the under the radar players in the system that the Cubs are high on. Jason McLeod drafted Justin Grimm while he was with the Red Sox, but Grimm did not sign and went to college.

There is more to the Cubs’ system than the prospects that are constantly making headlines. The Cubs have several players that have a chance to help the big league team win in the years to come.

Down on the Farm

Dave Otto began the session by acknowledging the talent, including Kris Bryant, the Cubs selected in last June’s draft. Jaron Madison, the Cubs’ Farm Director, said the draft was a good experience. The Cubs feel they added good talent to the system. The Cubs were able to select many of the guys they targeted in the draft and were on their board.

Dave Otto explained there are many things to be excited about in regards to the Cubs’ system. There are a lot of good players in the organization. The key is ‘players’ because, according to Otto, there used to be one or two good players in the Cubs’ system, now there are a lot of good players in the organization.

Jason McLeod fielded the question about Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters and where the two former top prospects stand with the organization.

Both players had a tough season and dealt with a lot of adversity as well as injuries. “We still have belief in both,” McLeod said. Vitters was born to hit and they tried him at different positions last season (first base and left field) when he was healthy enough to play. Vitters “needs to work on a few things” according to McLeod.

The Cubs gave Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters the winter off to hit the reset button on their careers. Jackson and Vitters will be in camp with the Major League team (both players are on the 40-man roster) and will compete for jobs. Vitters has been moved to the outfield on a full-time basis, at least for now.

The Cubs have a lot of depth in the system, a good nucleus as McLeod said. The Cubs feel there are several players, besides the Big Four, that has a chance to perform well in the majors and help the organization reach the goal.

Jason McLeod discussed the depth in the system this past week with Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jaron Madison. The Cubs’ brass feels there are several players that have a significant chance to be impact talent at the Major League level, which is unusual according to McLeod. Typically there are one or two players that project as impact talent at one time in the same organization. And while they know not all of them will reach their projections, there is a good chance that multiple players will. Beyond the Core Four, McLeod really tried to resist using the phrase, there are more players that have a chance to be “special.”

The Cubs need to add pitching to the system, a lot of pitching to the system.

Dustin Geiger has flown under the radar according to Jason McLeod with all of the other prospects in the system. “Geiger is not under the radar with us,” McLeod said. McLeod has brought up Geiger in other interviews when he has discussed the system. Geiger is coming off a really good season and is age appropriate for the level he played at last year (High-A Daytona), if not just a little younger. Geiger is flying under the radar due to the “bigger names” in the system.  The Cubs moved him to first base last year and he will have a chance to earn a promotion during Spring Training.

Jaron Madison described another lesser known prospect, Rock Shoulders, as impressive both on and off the field. The Cubs will move him around to different positions during Spring Training (outfield) to see if he can increase his value. Madison added, “We have to find at bats for him.”

David Bote and Pierce Johnson were two other prospects McLeod and Madison were asked about and where they fit in the system. McLeod explained they are trying to develop Bote into a versatile, utility player. McLeod described Bote as a “scrapper, grinder, baseball rat” that needs to perform.

Pierce Johnson is coming off a “great developmental year” according to McLeod. Johnson was able to compete for a full season and is he “on his plan.”

The lack of catching depth in the system is a concern for the Cubs and an area they are trying to address. When asked about the lack of catchers behind Welington Castillo, McLeod said, “You share our concerns.” It is a definite area of need for the Cubs. They signed some six-year minor league free agents to help with the issue this season and will continue to convert position players to catchers.

Welington Castillo had a good year. McLeod explained that Dioner Navarro aided in Castillo’s development and Mike Borzello helped a lot with the strides Castillo made last season.

Christian Villanueva had “a hell of a season” according to Jason McLeod and is often overlooked due to all of “the sexy names” in the system like Javier Baez. Villanueva put up very good numbers at the Double-A level and is hands down the best third baseman in the Cubs’ system. Villanueva “can make sick plays” defensively but as McLeod pointed out, one of the reasons Villanueva is overlooked is the guy to his left (Javier Baez) is ridiculous.

And speaking of Javier Baez, the Cubs have discussed the possibility of him being exposed to second and third base during Spring Training. The front office will sit down with Rick Renteria at the beginning of camp to work out the details.

Jason McLeod stated Sunday the Cubs plan to leave Javier Baez at shortstop for “for as long as they can.” And McLeod thinks “that will be a while.” Baez will begin the upcoming season at shortstop. As for a possible position switch, McLeod said having Starlin Castro and Javier Baez “is a good problem to have.”

The Cubs will do their best not to rush a player to the majors. The team wants the players to dominate the level they are in and check all of the boxes in their player plan. Sometimes players are rushed and it stalls their careers according to Madison. The front office wants to make sure the player is ready so once they are in the majors, they stay in the majors.

Smokies’ play-by-play man, Mick Gillispie talked about the limits put on players in the minors from the front office. And while the minor league teams want to win games, they understand the big picture and that is to develop players. The organization’s decision to promote a player usually has a ripple effect throughout the system , and it is the same with injuries in the system.

Jaron Madison will be managing all of the rosters in the Cubs’ system this season and it will be up to him to assign players accordingly when necessary.

After the Cubs draft a player, sign him and get him into the system, they really limit innings for that pitcher in the first year of pro ball. It is good for the organization to get their hands on them. As for the type of pitchers they are looking for, big bodied, hard-throwers. The Cubs are looking for a certain type of type for a starting pitcher and the pitcher must meet the criteria (long check list). There is a process the front office goes through before selecting a pitcher in the draft. They want to do their best to add the pitcher that fits their organizational philosophy the best.

Jason McLeod addressed the incident last season with Jorge Soler. McLeod admitted he had a “couple of tough conversations” with Brandon Hyde about it. Soler understands what he did was wrong and is not accepted.

There are systems in place in the organization to help players adjust to professional baseball and in many cases living in another country. Randy Fuentes is the Cultural Assimilation Coordinator that helps Latin players with the transition to life in the United States. The Cubs work with the young players on the mental side of the game and life and really focus on life off the field. The Cubs give the players English lessons. It is a year-long (12 months) program, not just during the baseball season.

The Cubs system has not only improved on the field, but off the field as well this past year.

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2014 Cubs Convention Reports

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Quote of the Day

"When you play, play hard; when you work, don’t play at all." – Theodore Roosevelt