Q&A with Oneri Fleita

Opening Night for the Cubs' four full-season minor league affiliates is scheduled for later this afternoon and early evening. Inside The Ivy recently caught up with Director of Player Development Oneri Fleita for his thoughts on the organization's minor league harvest in this Q&A.

On the plate Thursday, the Triple-A Cubs open at home against Albuquerque beginning at 3:05 p.m. CDT in Des Moines. At Double-A, West Tenn travels to Birmingham for their season-opener against the Barons, and in Class-A, Daytona will again open the season with rival Brevard County at home while Peoria travels to Wisconsin.

Oneri Fleita, who spent seven seasons with the Baltimore Orioles farm system as a player, coach and manager, is now in his seventh year as head of player development with the Cubs. He earned the post in August of 2000 after spending six seasons with the organization as a minor league manager, area scout, and coordinator of Latin American operations.

Inside The Ivy: For starters, how proud does it make you to see guys like Matt Murton and Ronny Cedeno come up through the farm system and work their way into starting major league roles?

Oneri Fleita: Well that's why we're in the business we're in, and more so for me personally. It's a great reflection of our staff, which has done a great job. It's certainly the fruits of our labor.

Inside The Ivy: One thing folks always want to know is how much input you have in terms of who gets promoted to the major league club, who is traded away, etc. What do you say to them?

Oneri Fleita: Jim Hendry and I have a great relationship and we always discuss what our options are, plus I'm the one who calls all of our coaches and rovers. We have roving guys who travel every month. They go see the guys for five days at a time. I lean heavily on Lester Strode, Dave Bialas, Bobby Dickerson, Dave Keller, and now Buddy Bailey. Those are my rovers. I think a lot of times the fans don't recognize what they do. Dave Bialas is in charge of all the instruction on the field while Les is in charge of all the pitching. Bobby is our new infield instructor and also oversees all of the bunting. And Buddy Bailey, he oversees all of the catching and also our base-running while Dave Keller is our hitting coordinator. So I think a lot of times the fans don't realize that those guys kind of coach the coaches. They make sure all of the jobs are done on the field. It's a team effort, a group effort. We gather information and make a recommendation to Jim Hendry, and that's how the decisions are made.

Inside The Ivy: What updates can you give us on several of the prospects we haven't heard from in a while? I'm talking about guys like Nic Jackson and Chadd Blasko.

Oneri Fleita: Chadd looks great. He'll probably spend a few weeks here just to make sure that he is ready to go. But he's healthy, and that's probably the best news we've been able to give about Blasko in a while. Nic Jackson has done well and again, the key word for Nic is that he's healthy. Right now, because of the weather up north and the fact that he hasn't played in the field in a very long time, we're going to have him start at Daytona. We don't want to force him to play left field every day at our Double-A club, where there's only two American League clubs and not enough DH time.

Inside The Ivy: How is the unit doing as a whole in terms of staying injury free?

Oneri Fleita: The key to a successful season is always staying healthy. Knock on wood, everybody has been healthy through now.

Inside The Ivy: Is pitching still the cream of the crop?

Oneri Fleita: We've got a solid system, but we still feel like the strength is pitching. A lot of it has to do with the way we draft. In last year's draft, for example, we had an extra pick in the third round, so we had six top picks and the first five were all pitching I think. If you're in a position to draft pitching, you can never have enough of it. I would say pitching is still the strength, but our scouts have done a good job all around.

Inside The Ivy: In your opinion, what are your best examples of good overall scouting?

Oneri Fleita: All of a sudden, we feel good about a few catchers in the organization. Jake Fox couldn't have looked any better in big league camp this spring, and neither could Jose Reyes and Geovany Soto. There are also a couple of kids in the organization, Mark Reed and Yusuf Carter, who have looked really good up to this point, so we feel good about that. We also have a few good infielders now in Carlos Rojas and Eric Patterson, plus the kid [Joe] Simokaitis out of Nebraska last year. Then there's the young kid by the name of Sammy Baez, and I don't know if you read the clip this spring about Dylan Johnston, but Dusty Baker is really good about taking the young kids up to let them play in some big league games. He pinch-hit him in the seventh inning of a 3-3 game, and he homered. When you look around, we feel like we have some good catchers and some good infielders all across the board. Scotty Moore looked good in camp, so we feel like we have a third baseman there, and of course we have a lot of talented first basemen and outfielders like Felix Pie and Chris Walker.

Inside The Ivy: Speaking of which, a lot of the outfielders are guys who have always played center field throughout college/high school and their minor league careers, ala Pie, Walker and Sam Fuld. Is there ever a concern about where to play your top prospects, specifically Pie if Juan Pierre becomes a star in Chicago?

Oneri Fleita: You certainly always want to play him in center field. It's sort of like pitchers: you keep them in the starting rotation as long as you can and then if it forces your hand, a lot of times guys can become relievers. With the center field situation, if we wanted, we could move one to left or right. Felix Pie was blessed with a tremendous throwing arm, so if you had to put him in right field, you could envision that. He's kept his speed and continues to get bigger and stronger as he shows more power. He's still a young kid, and I don't know if he's scratched the surface on his ability just yet. It's a tough question to answer, but I'm just glad we've got them both in the organization. It's a nice problem to have.

Inside The Ivy: After seeing them this spring, what are your thoughts on the two prospects acquired in the trade for Corey Patterson: Nate Spears and Carlos Perez?

Oneri Fleita: Spears is a real scrappy second baseman and a nice left-handed hitter. He really makes a lot of contact and looks like the type of guy you need at the top of the order. He may be better suited as the second hitter in the order. Perez is a left-hander with a lot of arm strength. He'll pitch anywhere from 80 to 95, and it looks like he's got the makings of a second and third pitch. We're really pleased with both guys and their effort. Again, you can't say enough about the job our scouts have done. They've identified kids who have good work ethics and good makeups, which is hard especially when scouting other teams.

Inside The Ivy: A lot of people feel the Cubs' farm system has declined slightly over the past few seasons in contrast to other organizations. What do you think?

Oneri Fleita: I doubt any one of us pays attention to things like rankings. That's for Baseball America to do. I don't see enough of anybody else's system, but I know that we feel good about ours. We feel like we've produced a number of major leaguers and not only that, we've had a lot of guys that we've been able to use to help us acquire major leaguers. You kind of measure it in those two areas and when you break them down, we've done a good job.

Inside The Ivy: Who are some of the players that we lost over the course of the off-season and through spring cuts that will be missed a great deal?

Oneri Fleita: You're probably talking about guys like Ricky Nolasco, Sergio Mitre and Renyel Pinto, those kinds of guys. Sure, you miss them, but we thought we had a great draft last year. When you add Mark Pawelek and Donald Veal into the mix, you add to the shuffle really quick. Our job is to continue to pump players through the system and to continue developing players so you can go out and acquire the Juan Pierre's and guys who help us get better at the major league level.

Inside The Ivy: Murton and Eric Patterson are two examples of players developing quickly after their draft. Are the Cubs and baseball in general developing players at a faster rate than in years past?

Oneri Fleita: I don't really know what was done years ago before I came here, but I just trust the leadership that Andy MacPhail and Jim Hendry have given us. We're blessed with a good organization and the ownership of the Tribune Company that has given us the ability to do everything we can. We don't have many restraints and you can't say enough about the leadership. Andy could have changed direction a few years ago, but he stayed the course with what he wanted done. It's easy to quit and decide you want to go in a different direction like others have, but we haven't done that. It's Andy's philosophy and we all believe in it.

Inside The Ivy: Looking back on last season -- of all the players who needed a breakout year, who would that one player be?

Oneri Fleita: There are a couple of different guys. I thought Brandon Sing finally put something together. You wondered if he could do it again and he did. Eric Patterson and Sean Gallagher, to start their careers off the way they did was certainly nice. You mentioned Cedeno and Murton earlier, and I thought Felix Pie showed what it is we're looking for despite missing a half-season. It's a tough question, but I think that about sums it up.

Inside The Ivy: If there was an annual award given for comeback player of the year in the system, who would you have chosen?

Oneri Fleita: That's a good question. The guy who really stood up was Randy Wells. He had a great season and it was something unexpected. He found himself in major league camp this year and certainly earned it. Jae-Kuk Ryu is another great story. He'd had a little trouble with his arm and had a great year. The guy we don't want to leave off is Rich Hill. Here's Rich, who came in and had a great Spring Training and just carried it all the way through.

Inside The Ivy: I know you're very high on Jae-Kuk Ryu. How did he look to you this spring?

Oneri Fleita: He's a fastball, curveball, changeup guy who had really good command. I think the word that defines him is "competitor." Anybody who comes from Korea like he did, my hat's off to him. I'm Latin, and we always have people here to take care of our Latin players. Not to take anything away from them, but every time something comes up, they have somebody who can help them get through the day. When you're from Korea, and we're hiring interpreters without a baseball background because of the fact that baseball has a background of its own in Korea, my hat's off to him.

E-mail Steve Holley: staff@insidetheivy.com.

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