The 2016 Cubs Convention wrapped Sunday morning with the Down on the Farm session hosted by Double-A Tennessee’s play-by-play man Mick Gillispie.
Jason McLeod and farm director Jaron Madison were joined by RHP Carl Edwards Jr., LHP Eric Jokisch and 1B Dan Vogelbach.
The Cubs still have one of the top 10 farm systems in the game even with the graduations to the majors last year. Theo Epstein thinks the Cubs will be ranked in the five-seven range when the pre-season lists come out. There is a lot of talent throughout the organization.
Here are the highlights from Sunday’s Down on the Farm Session.
Jason McLeod is extremely humble. The work he’s done with the organization over the last four-plus years is often overlooked by the media and fan base. The Cubs’ system would not be where it is today without Jason McLeod, Tim Wilken and the scouting and player development staffs.
McLeod explained a lot goes into getting an organization to the point the Cubs are at now. McLeod likes the daily challenge of his job and wants to be with the Cubs when it happens. McLeod was in Boston when the Red Sox drought came to an end. And he thinks a Cubs championship will mean even more.
“It’s the greatest challenge now in the history of North American sports,” McLeod said.
Last year meant a lot to McLeod for more than the obvious reasons. McLeod took a little extra pride seeing players he helped draft and develop have the level of success they did while making such an impact on the team. It will mean even more to McLeod when he is able to celebrate with the players on the field after the Cubs have won the World Series.
Mick Gillispie asked Jaron Madison if the hard work he had to put in as a young player helps him relate to players that are going through the same process. For some players the game comes to them easier than others. Madison reminded Gillispie that he wasn’t very talented so he had to work hard.
The Cubs have done a good job at drafting and trading for talented players while also focusing on the makeup of the player. A player’s makeup will be a separator for the Cubs. It is very important to find players that have the work ethic and the fortitude to want work “their butts off and give everything they can to reach their potential.”
Madison explained that the minor leagues are a grind from the travel, the hotels, the nights on the road and the bus trips. Madison stressed the importance of finding guys that are willing to accept that kind of challenge and make it their profession. Madison feels the Cubs have mature players that are focused throughout the minor league system on the goal of working their way up to the big leagues and helping the Cubs win a championship.
“It’s fun to be a part of,” Madison said. “It’s a challenge to get everyone on the same page but it’s special when everyone starts to develop. And you watch these kids, 17-, 18-year olds and 21-year old guys work their way up and become men right before your eyes. It’s pretty special.”
There isn’t a big difference between starting and relieving for Carl Edwards Jr. He used the same mentality as a reliever last season as he did as a starter. As a reliever, though, he felt like he “could go out there and just let it go.” Edwards Jr. did not try to pace himself last year. He just wanted to go right at people. Edwards Jr. did change his routine to fit his new role better.
Eric Jokisch made his big league debut in 2014 and is one of the pitchers overlooked in the system. Jokisch is so far off the radar that the Cubs had him listed as an infielder on his photo during player introductions at Opening Ceremony. Jokisch has had to work his way through the system after being drafted by the previous regime. Jokisch believes the changes made in the minor league system by current management helped get players through the system faster and more prepared to help the big league team.
Jokisch said he will be ready if he gets the opportunity to help the Cubs and make an impact right away. He is looking forward to competing for a job in Spring Training.
Later in the session Jokisch was asked about his health and how the rehab from last year’s oblique injury is progressing. Jokisch said he is healthy and ready to go for Spring Training but rehab is awful and last year was hard on him. Jokisch explained he hasn’t dealt with many injuries over the course of his career. He has been pretty healthy.
Jokisch suffered an oblique injury in June and it was pretty bad timing. He thought that if he continued to pitch well and if there was an opportunity at the big league level that he would have a chance at grabbing a spot on the staff. Instead, he saw his good friends Dallas Beeler and Donn Roach receive opportunities in the majors while he was “sitting there in Arizona rehabbing.”
Jokisch explained that suffering an injury and rehabbing in the minors is tough, especially when you are looking for that one chance.
There are not a lot of players at the Double-A level that have the same kind of plate presence Dan Vogelbach does. Mick Gillispie saw a lot of Vogelbach last season before the injuries cut short his year. Since High School, Vogelbach has focused on not striking out, putting the ball in play, hitting his pitch and not swinging at a pitcher’s pitch. The main thing for Vogelbach when it comes to hitting is to stick to his plan and get on base.
Tim Wilken left the Cubs organization early in the off-season to take a job as a special assistant with the Diamondbacks. Wilken is one of the most respected talent evaluators in the game. McLeod hopes the Cubs have a big enough staff to absorb the loss of Wilken, and he thinks they do. McLeod explained that a Tim Wilken is simply not replaced. McLeod and Wilken are still close and he’s happy for the opportunity Wilken was given in Arizona.
“If they ever open up a scouts wing in the Hall of Fame, I really think he should be in there,” McLeod said.
McLeod was asked about teams tanking to improve their draft status. And McLeod pointed out the reasons teams want those high draft picks more today than ever.
“It’s not just about the pick anymore, picking up high. It’s really about the pool money that you get that comes with picking high. And there’s lot of advantages to having certainly more money than other teams to sign players. There’s a lot more you can do.”
When the Cubs selected Kyle Schwarber in the first round of the 2014 draft, they signed him to an under slot deal and were able to use the money saved on Schwarber to draft and sign three pitchers (Justin Steele, Carson Sands and Dylan Cease). McLeod would like to see a few of those players at a Down on the Farm session in a couple of years.
Teams are all about acquiring as many young, talented players as possible.
Jason McLeod is very happy the Cubs do not have a pick in the top five this year. Right now, the first pick for the Cubs in June’s draft will be in the third round. McLeod thinks as of Sunday the Cubs would pick around No. 66. Not having two first round picks does not impact the way the Cubs scout the players and prepare for the draft. This year’s draft class doesn’t have the high-end stars according to McLeod.
McLeod reminded everyone in the room that the first year he was in charge of the Red Sox’s draft, his first pick wasn’t until No. 65. And McLeod selected Dustin Pedroia. McLeod pointed out good things can happen if they stick to the process.
Jaron Madison answered questions about “three under-the-radar players” in Brad Markey, Chesny Young and Eddy Julio Martinez.
Brad Markey really put himself on the map this past season after starting the year in extended Spring Training. The Cubs thought he had things he needed to work on. Markey forced the Cubs hand with his performance. Madison explained that he forced them to move him up to South Bend. After a short-time with South Bend an injury to another pitcher, he was given a shot at starting … and he just took off from there. Markey forced the Cubs to promote him to High-A Myrtle Beach. Madison said he’s “an exciting kid” and “fun to watch.” Markey gets after it and challenges hitters.
Chesny Young has a real feel for controlling the zone and barreling up balls. Young understands what pitchers are trying to do to him, can hit to all fields and is self-aware. Madison thinks Young is “a special player.” The Cubs look forward to see how he performs as he moves up the system.
Eddy Julio Martinez is a 20-year old player from Cuba. McLeod quickly corrected himself. Martinez turns 21 on Monday. Martinez is a real toolsy guy, an impact young talent. Martinez reminds McLeod of an NFL defensive back. Martinez has plus speed, pull side plus-power with a strong arm. McLeod said he can really throw. The Cubs have not spent a lot of time with him yet. McLeod is not sure if he will play center field or not. Martinez is scheduled to attend mini-camp next month.
The Cubs have a lot of talent coming through the system and there is a concern within the fan base about losing players in the Rule 5 Draft. The Cubs spent a considerable amount of time discussing the 40-man roster early in the off-season to make sure they are adding the right players to the roster as well as holding spots open to sign six-year free agents. The front office talks about the 40-man roster throughout the year.
McLeod admitted when they did not know the organization too well when they first took over. And the Cubs lost several players to the Rule 5 Draft they left exposed and traded D.J. LeMahieu.
The Cubs talked to Edwards Jr. last Spring Training about transitioning him to the bullpen based on the needs the front office saw for the big league team. The Cubs thought they would be competitive and that Edwards Jr. could help the Major League pen at some point.
Edwards Jr. has the stuff to be successful in the big leagues and out of a bullpen. He has an explosive fastball with a devastating breaking ball. McLeod would like to see him throw his change more. The Cubs were very happy with the way he looked last spring facing Major League hitters.
The Cubs have added a lot of talent to the system through International signings. But those players are only 16 or 17 years old and will take several years of development time before they are ready for the big leagues. The Cubs will know more about each of those players in a couple of years. And even more when they are 20 or 21 years old. It just takes time no matter how talented the player may be.
Gleyber Torres is considered the No. 1 prospect in the organization. He will play at 19 years old this season and according to McLeod, he’s “a long ways out.”
The International market is a lot different from the draft. Teams have to rely on their scouts to find the right players. For the Cubs, it’s about adding as much talent to the organization as possible and signing International players gives them another way to do so.
Arismendy Alcantara injected a lot of excitement into the Cubs lineup a couple of years ago. Last season he struggled, was sent down and could not get on track. McLeod thinks he lost his confidence. He had problems out of Spring Training and just wasn’t able to turn it around. And it all spiraled on him.
Alcantara has always been able to hit fastballs. Once he started doubting himself and worrying about breaking balls, he stopped hitting fastballs because he was caught in between. McLeod is hoping he can get back on track this season. Being able to start fresh in the spring should help him. Alcantara is still young enough and talented enough that he has time to get past last season.
Dan Vogelbach is focused on being the best first baseman he can be. He is not thinking about the possibility of the designated hitter coming to the National League. Vogelbach realizes Anthony Rizzo is the first baseman of the Chicago Cubs now and in the future. Vogelbach wants to learn from Rizzo how to be a better first baseman and hitter.
Vogelbach admitted when he was drafted he was not in the best shape. He explained there are things that a player can get away with in high school that they can’t as a professional. The Cubs gave him a training program and did not give him a choice of whether he wanted to follow it or not. Vogelbach said he took everything the organization told him to heart and became determined to do whatever he needed to in order to play baseball.
Vogelbach said last year’s injuries are behind him. He’s healthy. He feels good and he’s ready for the season.
As for the players in the system that Jason McLeod and Jaron Madison think the fans should keep an eye on for this season, nine players were listed off rather quickly. Madison said 3B Jeimer Candelario, RHP Duane Underwood, OF Billy McKinney, OF Mark Zagunis, 2B/OF Ian Happ, RHP Dylan Cease, LHP Carson Sands, LHP Justin Steele and RHP Oscar De La Cruz are players that are up and coming. And McLeod added OF D.J. Wilson just before the session ended.
The Cubs are expecting several players to step up this year.
Carl Edwards Jr. had one at bat last year in the majors after he was called up. And he had to step in the box against Aroldis Chapman. Edwards Jr. said he felt like Henry Rowengartner. He called it a great experience but it was also scary. He thought for a minute he might get walked. Chapman fell behind 3-0 before he threw two past him. Edwards Jr. said he decided to swing at the third strike, but after he heard the ball pop the mitt.
Willson Contreras spent time with Mike Borzello this off-season. McLeod thinks he will benefit this spring from working with David Ross and Miguel Montero in big league camp. The Cubs are extremely high on Contreras. The Cubs emphasize the fundamentals of the position and expect their catchers to be good receivers, pitch framers, able to read swings and know how to call a game.
A catcher has to be selfless and understand his most important job is to be prepared and help his pitchers get through that game.
2016 Cubs Convention
- A Grand Opening to the 2016 Cubs Convention
- Day Two of 2016 Cubs Convention: The Ricketts Family Forum
- Day Two of 2016 Cubs Convention: Baseball Management with Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer
- Day Two of 2016 Cubs Convention: Joe Maddon and the Coaching Staff
A recap of the Business Operations session will be posted early in the week.