Q&A: Director of Player Development Oneri Fleita

<B>MESA, Ariz.</B> — Plenty of questions concerning the Cubs' farm system are on the minds of fans everywhere, and Inside The Ivy recently visited with Director of Player Development Oneri Fleita for the inside scoop.

Inside The Ivy: What are the organization's plans for Grant Johnson at the moment? We know he injured his hamstring earlier this spring. Are there plans for extended spring training?

Oneri Fleita: He'll probably miss the first couple of weeks of the season. He had a little problem while running a couple of weeks ago. I would say he'll probably get some action in Peoria two weeks into the season.

Inside The Ivy: Can you tell us a little about Chadd Blasko's injury last year and how it came about?

Oneri Fleita: He had a slight little—well, I guess the easiest way to say it was he just needed some shoulder cleanup. It wasn't anything serious and he's coming along great. He looks great, but we're probably looking at mid-season before he'll be ready to go.

Inside The Ivy: How is Jason Wylie recovering from his injury, and when will we see him again?

Oneri Fleita: He's also doing really well. He'll probably miss the first month of the season. Again, there was just a little cleanup in his shoulder that needed to be done.

Inside The Ivy: Matt Clanton was a first round pick in 2002 and missed all of last season with injury. Will he be back on the mound this year?

Oneri Fleita: I'm afraid to say. He's undergone a second surgery and right now I'm afraid we don't even know. There's a good chance he'll miss most of the season again.

Inside The Ivy: A lot of people feel the organization's primary emphasis has been on the position of catcher these last three drafts, what with high-round picks going to Tony Richie, Jake Fox, Alan Rick and most recently Mark Reed. Would you agree with that assessment?

Oneri Fleita: Well, not really. I mean, we try to take position players in general. Some of the higher picks were (Ryan) Harvey and (Brian) Dopirak, but we're trying to have a little of everything. We've been fortunate to augment our draft with Latin America and kids like Carlos Rojas and Felix Pie, but Brandon Sing was a late-round pick who has turned out to be quite a prospect. You mentioned the catchers and we've tried to target a different spot every year. You always try to get a left- or right-handed pitcher, and we've always been fortunate to get those, but you also try to mix in an outfielder or catcher. You're always trying to hit Bull's-eyes, and that's kind of hard to do with the draft.

Inside The Ivy: Do you see Jermaine Van Buren as the infamous "closer of the future?"

Oneri Fleita: No; he has been groomed to pitch two or three innings at a time, so that's what we're trying to work him into. Certainly if he falls into that role on down the road, that's great for him and the organization. However, Larry (Rothschild) is just trying to get him some innings, because with a guy like that, if he's not a closer he's going to be a long man. He's got all the intangibles to close, but right now he's just being groomed as part of the mix. Whatever materializes from there will just materialize.

Inside The Ivy: What has Bobby Brownlie's workload consisted of this spring, and is he regaining velocity? Were you worried about the drop on his fastball last year?

Oneri Fleita: For whatever reason, sometimes when the guys are introduced to the kind of work load we have on a daily basis, it sort of fluctuates. Through a little bit of maturity and letting the body have a chance to adjust, sometimes it's just a timeline. It's going to take some time, but he's been fine and has thrown well in camp. He's got a great attitude and we sure like him a lot; he's a good kid.

Inside The Ivy: What has Felix Pie's spring consisted of to this point?

Oneri Fleita: He's had a chance to play with some big league players and knocked in two runs the other day. He was fortunate enough to make it to our mini-camp. We got him a Visa and he made it here, so he's been here for quite a while. He looks great and is ready to go.

Inside The Ivy: What can you tell us about Angel Guzman? How fast is he clocking and where do you project him to start the season?

Oneri Fleita: I think he'll be in Iowa. He really hasn't had a chance to pitch a whole lot the last two years as you know. He's being treated as a normal pitcher and is throwing well. Just the other day, he was hitting 94-96 mph. It's just a matter of letting him get his feet wet, and we've all got our fingers crossed. It looks like he's back to his old self.

Inside The Ivy: Luis Montanez was a first round pick five years ago this summer, and he came on strong toward the end of last year at Boise. Does the organization have plans for him this season as an outfielder once again? Where do you believe he'll start 2005?

Oneri Fleita: He's going to come out and battle for a job just like everyone else. There are a whole lot of guys here from Double-A on down, and he's been given a chance. He is in the Double-A group right now. We told him last year that we weren't going to hold where he played (Boise) against him. It was important that he went and played the outfield.

Inside The Ivy: How does the organization plan to handle Jake Fox and Alan Rick this season? Will we see another platoon of sorts?

Oneri Fleita: Well, you try to start giving them both playing time when working out of Spring Training. All of a sudden, we've got a few kids who have lots of skills: (Jose) Reyes, Geovany Soto, and then the Fox's, Richie's and Bernard's, plus the Reed kid that we drafted last year. We're starting to have some depth. It's hard when you have that many catchers and only four affiliates, so we're trying to mix and match. Sometimes that changes over the course of the season.

Inside The Ivy: Last year, Michael Wuertz was the surprise candidate who made the opening day roster. If you had to choose, who would be your top choice this season?

Oneri Fleita: Well, it's hard, you know? I don't know if there is a surprise. We have such a great group of players that I think the surprise will be the guys who don't make it. It's going to be disappointing for anyone who goes back to Iowa. Knock on wood, they're all healthy. This is a good competition we have going and a lot of these guys now have a year to a year-and-a-half of experience under their belt. It's not really a surprise now; it's just a matter of who gets the nod and the chance to make the club.

Inside The Ivy: How do you plan to work Richard Lewis and Mike Fontenot, both second basemen, into action this year when they're virtually at the same level of the system?

Oneri Fleita: Well, I think it's only fair to both of them that they'll each have to be introduced to third base and maybe even the outfield a little. They're good players and, especially at the second base position, it never hurts a player to at least be able to demonstrate he has some flexibility. I think what's most important to both of them right now is that they continue to get their at-bats, because when you go to the big leagues, who knows that you won't be needed at a second position anyway? If they show us they can play another position, it not only helps them but our organization.

Inside The Ivy: Here are a couple of questions from our readers: first, Dusty Baker has a history of favoring veterans as opposed to the young prospects. Has this philosophy impacted the organization's approach to development and bringing players up through the system?

Oneri Fleita: Not in the way our relationship is based. He's got Jon Leicester up there, plus (Michael) Wuertz, (Sergio) Mitre, (Todd) Wellemeyer and of course Corey Patterson. When Hee Seop Choi was here, he played every day as well, so I think that's kind of a misnomer. I mean, the bottom line is Dusty believes it's not a game of age or size; he just wants to win like everyone else.

Inside The Ivy: Second, it always seems like a no-win situation to trade promising talent for proven veterans, because if the veteran doesn't perform or the youngster traded becomes great somewhere else, you always hear about it. What kind of input do you provide Jim Hendry with when he is considering these types of trades? How difficult is it to make those trades and feel confident you aren't giving away a future All-Star?

Oneri Fleita: Well, all you can do is give your best opinion. Sometimes when you have a need at the major league level, that's why you have a farm system. It's a tough part of the business, because we get close to the players. At the same time, we have to keep the major league club well fed to give them a chance to win.

Inside The Ivy: How is the injury list so far? Are there any players who may miss opening day in the minors other than the ones we've already covered?

Oneri Fleita: No; knock on wood, I think we're in pretty good shape. You know, we've really taken a slow route with Sean Marshall because of the little tendon in his finger that was sprained. He may miss as much as the first month or first couple of weeks, but it's more because I'd rather go conservative on him. You mentioned Grant Johnson a little while ago, and he and Marshall are really the only two of note.

Inside The Ivy: Lastly, what are your thoughts on the current unresolved situation between the Cubs' Double-A affiliate and their city?

Oneri Fleita: We're just there to supply a team, and we are certainly in a spot where we're very loyal to the city. They've been very good to us and we've had a number of players go through there over the last few years. We want to play ball and hopefully they can work things out to stay in Jackson. But the bottom line is we like the Southern League a lot. There are only a couple of teams in the whole league that are American League affiliates. As a National League team, it's very important for us to be in a league like that, because your pitchers have to start bunting and handling the bat. We're in the middle of a good situation. The city and ownership have been great to us, so hopefully things will work themselves out. Be assured the Cubs will stay in the Southern League regardless.

Oneri Fleita enters his 11th year with the Cubs, and his fifth full season as the head of player development.

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