Jason McLeod, the Cubs Senior Vice President of Player Development and Amateur Scouting, spent time Monday with Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette (Power Alley – MLB Network Radio) talking about the top prospects in the Cubs’ system.
McLeod provided a little more information than usual on Addison Russell and Kris Bryant while stating the Cubs are fully committed to Kyle Schwarber catching. And Schwarber has made significant improvements in a short-time with his defense.
The Cubs viewed Jorge Soler as possibly the most advanced hitter of the group and he showed a little of what he is capable of last year in the majors. The Cubs are working with Javier Baez and trying to get him to carry his cage work into the games.
Jake Stinnett was the pitcher from the system that Mike Ferrin focused on and Jason McLeod said he’s created quite the buzz in camp already this spring.
The interview seemed to end just as it was getting started, partially because, as Jim Duquette said, with all of the talent in the Cubs’ system they could have talked to Jason McLeod for an hour.
On if he has had a chance to see Addison Russell in camp yet this spring
“Yeah, I literally just walked off the field, he just got through hitting in the third group there. He’s been really impressive. He’s kind of been someone that the staff, the Major League staff and players have been talking about. There’s a little bit of a buzz about him right now and certainly with those guys getting their first looks at him. As impressive physically the things that he does on the field, I think what has really impressed the players and staff is just the way he goes about preparing himself and how he gets ready for the day.”
On what the biggest thing is that he learned about Addison Russell after the Cubs acquired him last year
“For me the biggest thing is we really didn’t understand just the makeup of the player and how he’s wired and the way that, like I just said, the way he goes about preparing every day. His focus is about, about as good as I’ve ever seen for a player of his age and the way he maintains his focus throughout the game. He’s got a plan for everything that he does. His pre-game work is so impressive to see his routine that he takes with his infield defensive work and then his routine takes to the cages before he gets in to take BP [batting practice], he’s just a very mentally strong player. He’s just ultra-prepared for everything that he’s about to do.”
On how difficult or easy is it to find out a player’s makeup before drafting the player
“It’s funny you ask that question. I was talking to Dexter Fowler out on the field this morning about that very thing. He asked me what I thought of him as an amateur player and he asked me to break him down as a high school player and we talked about that very thing. I said it’s the mental, as an amateur scout trying to really learn how a player is wired, how hard he’s going to work, how much discipline he has, those are the toughest things I think as amateur scouts to really get at. All of us as evaluators we go in we look at the ability, we project on the ability on the physical attributes of the player. But we’re really trying to figure out as much, again, as how he’s wired and how he’s going to work, what kind of a teammate he’s going to be. It’s so hard to do that. You have to lean on your area scouts to really get to know the player, have a lot of history with him, see them in adversity, see them hopefully if they play other sports and how they deal with being a leader, how they deal with failure. All of those things play a big part.”
On what is left for Kris Bryant to do before he’s ready for the big leagues
“I think from the defensive side of things, we sat down with him during the season last year and certainly after the season and talked about the third base play, some positioning with him. Obviously he’s so big, wide frame, just with his height. So there’s been a lot of work with him at third base defensively: a) positioning b) because he’s so tall where he needs to be in his legs and how low we want him to play. Things like that. On the offensive side, certainly you don’t go out and have the year he had last year without being very good and very talented there. Kris [Bryant] is such a student of hitting and he certainly isn’t content at all. Even in a year where he hit 43 home runs and had the high average and the high on-base there is still some swing and miss there that’s going to be part of his game, but for him it’s some of the pitches in the zone that he felt he could do better attacking. He’s going to work certainly on that. His swing path works uphill so he’s got that natural loft and leverage. But with him it’s really just going to be seeing, continuing to see Major League pitching especially here in Spring Training.”
On if the Cubs are tempted to move Kyle Schwarber to the outfield because of the bat despite the fact he wants to catch
“We are really fortunate. The three guys we’ve talked about so far with Russell and Bryant and Kyle [Schwarber] to have three 70 or 80 makeup-type personalities here and like you said Kyle wants to catch, he’s committed to it. We are extremely committed to him catching. He has made so many strides since we drafted him last year. There was a lot of scouts out here at the Big 12-Pac 12 Tournament in Mesa over the weekend and they actually got to see Kyle catching Jake Arrieta down in the pens and they are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe how this guy looks.’ So, obviously if you’re talking about that kind of bat behind the plate, that’s a special player and like I said he’s come a long way. That is the plan going forward with him is just to catch him. He’s an athletic guy in a strong, compact body and he’s going to surprise a lot of people that were naysayers in terms of his ability to catch. He’s going to go out and I think do a really good job behind the plate for us this year.”
On how quickly he saw things come together for Jorge Soler last year when he was able to stay on the field for an extended period of time
“Well, Jorge [Soler] [side note: McLeod calls him ‘Georgie’] was always, when we started talking about the Javy [Javier] Baez and even Kris and [Albert] Almora and some of those guys, when we talked about our hitters we used to say this guy [Soler] might be the best at-bat right now if we had to call one of them out. Because he always, even scouting him as an amateur player internationally, he’s always had very good pitch recognition and not a big swing-and-miss guy, contact skills have been there. That’s what you saw in his minor league performance when he was playing. Unfortunately, like you said, he had missed a lot of time with the hamstrings and the shin and just couldn’t keep him on the field. He’s always shown that advanced plate discipline with just a powerful swing, a compact swing and as he got out in his year last year when he missed that time you threw him into Double-A facing some pretty good pitching there and you see him laying off those hard sliders down and away and you can kind of tell he’s picking the ball up so early. So for him, he’s always had that it’s just can you get him on the field, can you keep him playing. To see what he did in that time in the Major Leagues last year without having all of the minor league at bats we hoped he would have by that point was pretty impressive.”
On Javier Baez’s struggles in the majors last year and similar struggles in winter ball, how are the Cubs going to sort that out going forward for this year?
“Certainly a lot of conversation with him. You don’t want to overwhelm him with all of the information and talking to him constantly but I think anyone who has seen Javy knows that when he’s at the plate sometimes it looks like he’s trying to play Home Run Derby and the approach gets away from him, the swing gets really big, the leg kick gets big and obviously you saw that last year in the Major Leagues and struggles in the Winter League saw that he was still doing that. Certainly we are trying to simplify it. A lot of cage work. I think the thing with Javy is that he’s outstanding in the cages and he gets back on the field and his motor gets going a little bit and I think he’s someone who takes a lot of pride in the power and bat speed that he has and he wants to show it all of the time. I think he’s just a young player who we are trying to get him to slow down once he takes it out onto the field.”
On if there are ways a player can be taught pitch recognition or is there a limit as to what can be taught in terms of pitch recognition? Are there ways to apply training lessons to allow guys to pick the ball up better?
“In all the years, a lot of us have been in the game a long time, I think you might get different answers to that. I think there certainly are certain guys that when even going and scouting them you can tell they are seeing the ball right out of the hand by the way they take pitches. Not necessarily when they are swinging. Jorge is one of those guys like I just had mentioned, you can tell when he takes those breaking balls off the plate that he saw it really early. Getting back to can you teach that? I personally don’t feel like you can teach pitch recognition. Now, I think players need all of the repetition, they need to see a lot of pitches and hopefully they can build that up over time but I think the guys that innately have the ability to see it out of the hand with some of your more advanced college hitters like a Schwarber or the Colin Morans of the world, where you can go in and scout them and you can tell right away they are seeing it. I think guys have that innate trait in them.”
On if he thinks there is a way to improve a player’s ability to recognize pitches and how do the Cubs sort through that developmentally?
“Well, I think, again, you can talk to players about the approach. A big thing early in Spring Training you get the guys that come in and track. I’m always a fan during the season of having our players track pitchers in the bullpen just to get them in a more relaxed environment where the pressure is not on and it’s not game time where they’re still seeing live pitching. I know a lot of teams have gone to these software based programs where they can try to train their hitters’ eyes on pitch recognition and timing. So I know there is a lot out there in terms of trying to train players and get them better. I still think it’s just something that certain guys are just better at it than others, but certainly you can still work at it.”
On the plan for Jake Stinnett, the Cubs second round pick in last year’s draft that Mike Ferrin had a chance to see pitch at Maryland, and what his ultimate ceiling could be?
“He’s going to start obviously. This is a guy that was a conversion. He went to college as a position player … funny story actually we’re from the same high school in California and I didn’t even know that until I was drafting him last year. He will be a starter this year. Like you mentioned he got hurt during PFP drills in the summer and ended up losing, he had to have surgery, losing like 15 pounds but he came back very strong and he looks outstanding right now coming into camp. He’s a guy that had an incredible year last year in the ACC and he kind of burst onto the scene when he matched up with [Carlos] Rodon on a Friday night and I think he had 13 or 14 strikeouts. We love the athlete. We like how the delivery and the arm works. When he’s going right he’s a low- to mid-90s fastball guy with a power slider behind it and like a lot of guys still working on the development of the change-up and really just building more innings under his belt. He’s only been pitching full-time for two years but I think comfortably we see him as a guy that could be a no. 4 but I think the ceiling there is certainly to be a three if not better. He’s been really, really impressive with our staff. He’s kind of the guy, from our pitching coordinator to the pitching coaches, that there’s been a lot of buzz about.”