It’s not everyday that you get an opportunity to talk to the Vice President of Player Personnel for the Chicago Cubs. Oneri Fleita is guy who controls the future of over 150 minor league baseball players yet when you talk to him, he is one of the more down to earth guys you will ever meet.
While Fleita was in Boise, I had a chance to sit down with him and have a one-on-one interview about various topics regarding the Cubs minor league system. The Cubs farm system has begun to yield some great talent with the likes of Andrew Cashner, Geovany Soto, Starlin Castro, and Tyler Colvin. I wanted to figure out how such great talent was produced and hear about some of the new faces that may one day make it to Wrigley Field.
Fleita has served in various roles since he broke into baseball in 1988. He has been a coach, an instructional league manager, a scout, and even a third base coach.
“I coached third base. That was probably one of the highlights of my career in terms of having fun. I certainly was over matched and had no business coaching third base (laughs) but it was a lot of fun,” said Fleita. “I’ve always looked at myself as one of the lucky guys. I don’t know how it all happened, but I have been truly blessed to be around a lot of great people who have opened a door for me to do a lot of things in the game.”
One of the key components that has evolved since Fleita took this position in 2000 has been the development the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues.
“There were definitely huge challenges. I had only scouted one year in the Midwest League and I had only coached three years and managed three years, so I was learning on the job at the time,” said Fleita. “Sandy Johnson, who was with the Arizona Diamondbacks at the time, was a mentor to me and gave me a lot of advice on how to form a scouting staff. Little by little we built and signed players and 15 years later, we have had guys like Carlos Zambrano and Carlos Marmol come up and make it.”
One of Fleita’s primary responsibilities is assembling his minor league coordinating staff. From Athletic Trainers to Field Coordinators, Fleita has to make sure his athletes have the best staff to maximize all of their abilities. The process of putting this staff together is one that takes time and a good eye.
“Dave Bialas is my right hand man. He is responsible for all of the instruction and oversees all of our field staff (Mark Riggins, Dave Keller, Franklin Font, etc). We can’t have a weak link in our team because all of the base running, the hitting, and pitching has to be taken care of,” said Fleita. “The criteria for being a part of our team is that we look for good baseball people. Guys that we think fit what we are trying to get accomplished and contribute to winning. At the end of the day you are trying to make decisions that you know that when you go to bed a night, you are doing the very best for the players on the field.”
Coordinating player movements and making sure that each farm team has enough adequate bodies to field a competitive team is a big task for Fleita. Fleita looks for various qualities when promoting a player, all of which vary based on the need.
“All the criteria is different. You want to first of all get to know the players. Some guys are not as confident as others and some kids may have not come from quality programs. With certain guys, you want to let them finish where they are,” said Fleita. “Case in point, look at Ramirez (Alvaro). He has a chance to win a batting title and he is having success. So rather than fool around and let him go somewhere where maybe he can go into a slump and end on a negative, I think you have to heir on the conservative side in that case and let him finish on a high note.”
It is no secret that the Cubs are still chasing after the World Series Title, something they haven’t been able to catch since 1908. Fleita offered his take on what needs to happen for the dream to be realized.
“We better get young players that can get to Chicago and contribute. You look at the Tampa Bay Rays and what they did with that young core of players that got to the bigs,” said Fleita. “You have to be able to develop young players. You look at Castro, Colvin, and Cashner and what they have done. If you get them up there in Wrigley Field and allow them to play and grow together, we hope that they can form that brotherhood and we can ride that float down Michigan Avenue.”
People already know about Castro, Colvin, and Cashner. People also know about emerging prospects in guys like Jay Jackson in Iowa and Josh Vitters in Tennessee. But there are some other prospects people don’t know about who can make an impact for the Cubs and improve those odds of getting that World Series parade on Michigan Avenue.
“Brett Jackson has had a phenomenal year. It’s his first full season and already he is in Double A. Tony Campana is on the same team and he has also had a tremendous year. Our Double A team has played really well,” said Fleita. “The list goes on and on. Christopher Archer, Hak-Ju Lee, Trey McNutt, Christopher Carpenter, and Casey Coleman. We feel like we have a huge core group of guys who can not only make it to the big league, but contribute to winning.”
Fleita has accomplished a ton since breaking into baseball in 1988. He has give opportunities to a score of baseball players and has developed many Latin programs that have produced many staples in the Cubs roster. But his ultimate goal is to one day bring that World Series Title home to a city that deserves it.
“I want to be a part of a World Series Championship team. Even if I am the guy who is raking the field during the game, I want to be a part of that team. I want one for the Chicago Cubs because I love the fans and I love the city. The Ricketts family has been wonderful and hopefully we can put everything together and get that championship,” said Fleita.
Till next time..
Media Relations Assistant
First off, thank you for everyone that read my first installment. My first blog was a bullpen session, so it’s time for me to take the mound and start diving into topics that you care about.
To kick off my second installment, I want to talk about the MLB First-Year Player Draft, which is less than 48 hours away. The Chicago Cubs, who are the parent-team for your Boise Hawks, are sitting at pick 16 and needless to say, have plenty of options. The question on everyone’s mind is who will they go with; a young arm or will they follow suit and take an athletic, five-tool player?
That question will be answered by Tim Wilken, the Cubs Amateur and Professional Scouting Director. Since Wilken took over in December of 2005, he has had a pretty solid track record at finding good talent early. Outfielders Tyler Colvin and Brett Jackson have both been impressive in the minors and Colvin has been a solid bat for the Cubs this season, hitting .293 with 5 HR and 13 RBI. Wilken also cashed in on pitcher Andrew Cashner, who flew through the minors to earn a spot in the Cubs bullpen this season. Third baseman Josh Vitters is the highest rated prospect to ever make to Boise in 2008 and he did not disappoint, hitting .328 with 5 HR and 37 RBI. Vitters’ 25 doubles were the second most in Hawks history and he was the only unanimous for the Northwest League All-Star team that season.
With all of that being said, Wilken has several interesting options at pick 16. Wilken’s track record has always been selecting the best, positional athlete on the board. But according to MLB.com Draft expert Jonathan Mayo, he predicts the Cubs will go with a young arm this year in Asher Wojciechowski from The Citadel. Wojciehowski has 6’4″ frame and is known for his fastball, which registers around 94 mph. The word from many scouts is that he has a good slider, but his change up has been a little suspect and it is not a strong as his other pitches.
My take on Wojciechowski is this; just about any team can use a 6’4″ fireballer in the bullpen who can spell the closer or be the closer. My only hang up is that given the profile, Wojciechowski sounds a lot like Cubs relief pitcher Jeff Samardzija. If I am WIlken (given the current layout of my team), I would be looking more for a solid starting pitcher, as opposed to a relief pitcher. Given what we know thus far on Wojciechowski, it sounds like he is more suited for the bullpen than the rotation.
If I were Wilken, I would take a long look at pitcher Karsten Whitson from Chipley High School in Florida. Whitson has a great fastball that registers around 91-96 mph and a slider that resembles Wojciechowski’s. Where the two pitchers differ is in their off-speed pitches. Whitson has a very nice change up that hits between 80-82 mph and has enough fade to where that pitch could be a “plus pitch” for his arsenal. Anytime you can find a 6’4″ guy like Whtison with this kind of profile, it’s hard to pass on him. The biggest plus is that he is straight out of high school, so he has not hit his full potential yet. With great tools and the ability to grow, Whitson would be a great choice if he is still there at 16.
If Wilken is dead set on a skill position player, then Justin O’Conner is a name that could generate a lot of buzz. O’Conner, a shortstop/catcher from Cowan High School in Indiana, has the make up that a lot of Wilken’s picks have had; he’s a powerful, patient hitter who has great, raw athleticism. The most intriguing thing about O’Conner is the fact that he doesn’t really have a position. He has shown a cannon for an arm (pitching up to speeds of 95 mph) and some people think he is best suited at the catcher position, rather than his current position of shortstop. The only drawback is that he is very green at the catcher spot, so if the Cubs put him in that role, they will have to give him several years to develop.
Regardless of who the Cubs decide to go with, they should benefit in some form or another. Most of the players highlighted have the athleticism the Cubs seek and hopefully they can add even more depth to a minor league system that is producing big league talent. But then again, the name Mark Prior still resonates with many in Wrigleyville.
Till next time..
Media Relations Assistant