Jason McLeod joined Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette during Power Alley (MLB Network Radio/XM Radio) Tuesday as part of their look at the farm systems across the league.
Outside of the standard questions about Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora, in which McLeod gave a little more detail on each player, he also discussed Mike Olt, C.J. Edwards, the reasoning behind them drafting the crop of College pitchers last year and the Cubs plans for Arodys Vizcaino.
Mike Ferrin: Talking farm systems as we get ready for Spring Training. One of the, I would say they have the highest impact potential of any of the farm systems in baseball right now are the guys at the top of the ones for the Chicago Cubs. And in two short years Jason McLeod has helped to lead the Cubs’ farm system back to a level of prominence that they are hoping soon translates onto the Major League field. Their Senior Vice President of Player Development and Amateur Scouting is with us now. Jason, Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette, great to catch up. How are you this morning?
Jason McLeod: Doing great guys. Very happy to be out of the cold in Chicago that’s for sure.
Jim Duquette: Oh man, I’ll bet Jason. It’s been a rough winter up there as it has been a lot of places. So, we appreciate you coming on as always. Obviously we want to kind of get into this right away and the first one I wanted to ask you was when you are looking at the high upside as Mike just mentioned with your prospects, that desire to win at the Major League level versus pushing some of these guys. We see a lot of teams pushing their prospects a little further now. How do you guys balance that?
JM: Well, I think the thing we do is just communicate with the players and all of these guys have their individual player plans laid out for them that they take part in. So they understand some of the things they need to do before they are going to move up, whether it be level to level in the minor leagues or eventually before they make that step up to the Major League club. We are real excited about the impact potential of a lot of our guys, but at the same time I think that is what from an internal standpoint that is what guides us is how they are doing with those plans. How they are developing within their seasons and the things that they need to do and what we feel and what they feel they need to do to be productive Major League players.
MF: Jason, I am kind of curious because two of the guys that are at the top of the list in Javier Baez and Kris Bryant are at positions where there are plenty of people from the outside who don’t think they are necessarily going to stay there. You have been steadfast in saying Baez is a shortstop, Bryant is a third baseman. How do you try and juggle that with the idea of, or when does a player, I guess tell you when he needs to switch positions?
JM: I think the simple answer for us is they are going to stay at those positions until they show us they CAN’T play there in the Major Leagues. Both of those guys, like you said, Javy is going to start the year playing shortstop in Iowa and Kris is certainly going to go into the year as a third baseman. If that time ever does come, for whatever reason where we feel they have to move off the position; both of these guys are first and foremost baseball players. With Kris he is tall, athletic, rangy and we think it would be a fairly seamless transition if he did have to move to a corner outfield position. We have already seen Javy in Major League camp and Major League Spring Training games play second base. He’s played third base in the Fall League, so if it comes to that we think the transition will be smooth. But in the meantime, Javy is a shortstop; Kris is a third baseman and they going to stay there until they show us they can’t play those positions in the Major Leagues.
JD: That is a good answer there Jason, I guess I want to take that a little step further. You get to that point where he obviously shows you he can play short but he’s blocked, right …
JM: … Ahem …
JD: You have a tremendous shortstop in obviously Starlin Castro. That transition, how quickly do you think the transition for a player, any player, I don’t want to pin you down and say ‘BAEZ’, but whoever, any player taking a position and moving him to the next one. I know it is an individual thing, but in your experience what do you think is kind of the quickest turnaround for someone like that to make it?
JM: Well, first of all I think that those are going to be some fun conversations when that time comes and I’m sure that is going to happen here in the near future. But, like I was saying I think it is dependent on the individual player. How well they adapt. How quickly they adapt to certain positions and like I said we’ve seen Javy, we asked him, I think it was last year or the year prior to just play second base in an exhibition game in Spring Training. And he went over there and it looked like he had been playing there his whole life. So, like I said I think with him depending on where the position is, if it is second base because he plays shortstop and he’s used to be in the middle of the field I think the transition will be pretty seamless. Kris not having as much experience, if we had to move him to the outfield, I think he’s athletic enough to make that change. I think it is just dependent on the individual player no matter where you are asking them to move and try a new position …
JD: … Sure …
MF: We are talking to Jason McLeod of the Chicago Cubs.
MF: Jason, those two guys are going to get a lot of the ink because it seems that they are the closest to the big leagues, and I don’t want you to necessarily put a timetable on them, but what do you feel like has to happen for both Bryant and Baez in the higher levels of the minor leagues for them to maybe see a glimpse of big league time in 2014?
JM: I think the biggest thing for both of them from an offensive standpoint is just consistency in their approach and the quality of their plate appearances from, you know game to game, day to day. Javy went through and had a great year last year when you look at the totality of what he did between High- and Double-A. At the same time within that season you saw a lot of AB’s that he kinda gave away and those are things that we want him to clean up from that standpoint. Kris has only had a half season and the Fall League, or not even a half season, then the Fall League under his belt. He had a tremendous year between College and what he did professionally last year and now for him the challenge is just going to be going through a full professional season with wherever he ends up and getting 500-plus plate appearances and adjusting to the league as they adjust to him. And then on the defensive side, I think that is going to be one of the more important factors. If Javy or Kris for that matter, whomever it is, that puts himself in position where now the Major League staff is looking at them, I think most mangers one of the first things they are going to ask is, ‘Can this guy catch the ball when he gets up here?’ Those are things. Consistency in their offensive approach and the quality of their plate appearances and then the day in and day out routine with the defensive side of the game.
JD: Jason, I am curious with Soler, Jorge Soler, we’ve seen the success with Cespedes and Puig and there is always that natural, try to compare them, at least around the game. How do feel like his … he had the stress fracture. How do you feel like his development has come along?
JM: Obviously his season was cut short, you know with the injury last year. The one thing that we were very happy with and impressed with was this is a guy who really competes in his AB’s. For a 20-year old last year really showed good feel for pitch recognition and the ability to use the middle of the field. Obviously the strength and the power are there. So in the half-season of at bats that he had we were real happy with the development that we saw from him. Because of the signing bonus and then you look at what Cespedes and Puig went out and did, you don’t want those types of expectations on this kid. He was younger than those guys. He didn’t play at the level that THOSE players were at in Cuba when we signed him. I am not sure if you guys have seen him but it’s tremendous upside with the frame and the power and he can really throw from the outfield. So the biggest thing for Jorge going into this year is just staying healthy and being able to play a full season. But this is a guy who has a really good understanding of the strike zone. He competes in his AB’s and now it is just up to him to go get those at bats so he can make the adjustments and learn and hopefully he has a big year for us this year.
MF: He (Soler) is a massive human being. He looks like a defensive end. I mean the guy is huge. It’s an incredible athlete.
MF: We are talking to Jason McLeod, the Senior VP of Player Development and Amateur Scouting for the Cubs.
MF: The other name in the Big Four that comes up, or at least as what we’ve dubbed them I think in the media, the Big Four, is Albert Almora. I know Almora has dealt with some injuries. The reports on him, the makeup is off the charts. But the thing that intrigues people the most is he is a very good centerfielder, despite the fact that he is not a particularly fast runner. How does he do it? And, how do you kind of judge that as he goes up the chain when you tend to see guys that are plus-runners play centerfield and be successful defensively when that is not one of his strengths?
JM: Albert, like you said has incredible makeup. To me he’s got some of the best outfield instincts I’ve seen in a player. His jumps on a ball are about as good as you will see. When I talk about him I try, because you are right he’s not a plus-speed burner guy, but when you watched Jim Edmonds play or Kirby Puckett, guys that weren’t, and those were obviously Gold Glove-type-caliber players and I think Albert can be that because he makes all of the plays and when you watch him off the bat he is moving. And it is hard to really describe it until you watch him. His instincts are great, his jumps are great and this is a guy for me who certainly is Gold Glove-caliber centerfielder despite, maybe on the stopwatch, being an average runner.
JD: Sure … speaking with Jason McLeod.
JD: I wanted to ask you about Olt and Edwards, guys you got in the Garza deal. How do you feel like their … Olt obviously close? Edwards, I am kinda curious how you feel like he is in his development too?
JM: Mike (Olt) as you guys know, tough year last year coming off the concussion where he got beaned. We are really hoping that he is passed that now. He obviously tried to do a lot of things with the Rangers, in terms of seeing some specialists and we were helping him this off-season. He feels really, really good with some of things he was able to do. He was up in Chicago in January at our Rookie Camp and he looks great. Now we will see here in the next week or so when he starts facing live pitching what it looks like then. Strong, athletic, can play really good defense with big time power so we are hopeful this is a bounce back year for him. He could really do some special things on the field when he is healthy and hopefully those concussion issues are past him …
JD: … Sure …
JM: C.J. had an incredible year last year starting off in Texas and then when we got him. He’s big, tall, really lanky kid, but it is a special fastball. Throws downhill, low-to-mid 90s with late cut. He can command it on both sides of the plate. Big overhand curveball and I think the obvious question with him is just going to be durability because he is 165 to 170 pounds. But really good makeup, works extremely hard and you love those guys who can really pitch effectively with their fastballs and use it to all parts of the zone and it becomes like three of four different pitches for him. Looking for a big year out of him and hopefully we can get some more weight on him. And it’s not for a lack of effort, he works hard and we think he’s got some special ability.
MF: Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ Senior Vice President of Player Development and Amateur Scouting is with us.
MF: You mentioned Edwards there and Pierce Johnson is obviously the other pitcher that has gained some notoriety in the system. But I’m interested since you were overseeing the draft; it seemed like part of your philosophy last year in drafting pitchers were getting guys that were basically collegiate Friday starters. And I’m curious as to what went into that philosophy? Not necessarily huge upside guys but guys that seemed like they could move quickly. Is that kind of fair to say and what went into that decision making process?
JM: The last two years we’ve gone pitching heavy in the draft after our first picks with Almora and Bryant, and the year prior we went with a little more upside, younger, a lot more high school arms the year prior. This year we wanted to take as much College pitching as we could. Looking for the starter demographic and you are always beholden to the talent pool on that particular draft. So, we lined up our board and we just hammered away at College pitching trying to get as many starters as we could. We really like Rob Zastryzny. Tyler Skulina is a big, tall, strong-bodied guy from Kent State. We took a big guy out of Pepperdine in Scott Frazier. So we just kept pounding as much college pitching as we could in that particular area of the draft. We know that is an area of need in the organization. Theo and Jed, every trade that they’ve made they’ve gotten back pitching. So you’re really just trying to build volume in the organization and taking who we felt checked most of the boxes off for us that could possibly be starting pitchers down the road in the Major Leagues.
JD: One of your trades that I thought was creative is when you traded Maholm for Arodys Vizcaino. He had the big arm before he had the Tommy John. Give us a sense of where he is right now, Jason, if you would.
JM: He (Vizcaino) had a setback last year. He was throwing really well in Spring Training, ball was coming out great. And then came up tender again so we shut him back down. Rehabbed him, throughout the year he threw some in our Dominican Instructional League, the ball was coming out great again. So, knock on wood, he is on schedule to face hitters this spring. It is a special arm. If you remember him when he was in Atlanta, it is electric stuff out of his hand. And even through the rehab process, when you watch the ball when he is playing catch, there are certain guys the ball just comes out different, you know, it’s got that extra zip on it. He is STILL a young guy when you think about it and we are real hopeful that he’s going to have a healthy season this year because we do see him as someone that can be a very viable backend candidate in the bullpen.
MF: I was going to ask, is the plan now to shift him full-time to the relief role or to let him start in the minors?
JM: I think the biggest thing is just to get him innings under his belt. I think his role probably best suits in the backend of a bullpen just with that big time fastball and slider coming off of it. I think most importantly is just get him on the mound, get him to face some hitters, make sure he is healthy and the rest will determine itself.
JD: Jason, I had one more. It is more philosophical. When you have your system that you guys have put into place from the top down and then you change managers and you bring in a guy like Rick Renteria. And, you know, he has his ideas. Do you make alterations to, obviously not a ton, but it feels like you are getting a guy that fits into what you already have obviously philosophically that you are matching up a little bit with. How much do you make some adjustments or changes with some things that he may bring to the equation?
JM: When Ricky came on board, obviously Jed and I had history with him in San Diego, we sat down with him and we gave him our Player Development Manual and obviously he is the manager, we want his feedback. When these players come up and play for him, he’s going to want and expect things out of them. Ricky poured through it and we did make some changes to some of the fundamental, bunt plays, baserunning, things like that. Certainly the manager plays a big role on how we want to teach our players. He is going to be the guy that is expecting them to do certain things so it plays a part in it for sure.
MF: Jason, before we let you go, we’ve talked a lot about the guys that are certainly the most famous of the prospects, but is the guy that has the chance to make the most immediate impact this season Arismendy Alcantara?
JM: You know he’s a guy that … I was so happy for him last year, having the year he did and going to the Futures Game, hitting a home run there. But he certainly has an opportunity to. He’s a guy, a dynamic-type player. Switch hitter with some pop from both sides, he can really run, versatile, he’s played short, he’s played second and if he goes out and is healthy and puts together another year like he did last year I think he could certainly be someone who’s being called upon to help the Major League club. And this is another guy with of the charts makeup as well which really makes you happy. I would say with him going to Triple-A this year as a 22- or 23-year old, certainly has an opportunity for sure.
MF: Jason we appreciate you taking the time as always. Go out and get some sun now that you’re in the warm weather at the …
MF: … How is the new facility? I drove by it in the AFL. I hear it’s impressive.
JM: Well, I tell you what, if you guys get the opportunity we have our ribbon cutting here tomorrow. It is incredible. I mean, it’s the best that I’ve been in and all of us are excited to be here. The players are so excited to be here. So, if you get the opportunity I highly recommend you guys stop by and see …
MF: … Well, if you want to fly us out, we’d love to be [laughs] we’ve got Florida again this year. I mean, spend some of that Ricketts money and help us get out there, we’d love it.
JM: Sounds good.
MF: Thanks, Jason. Thanks as always. Take care.
JM: Thanks for having me on guys.
MF: Jason McLeod, the Senior Vice President of Player Development and Amateur Scouting for the Cubs and if he wants to be a future General Manager in Major League Baseball. I would put him near the top of the list, wouldn’t you?
JD: Yeah, he’ll be on that list for sure. Well, he is on that list.