The Importance of Instructs

Officially, about 43 players from the Chicago Cubs' farm system reported to Arizona this month for the start of the 2008 Instructional League.

Unofficially, there are likely more players on hand than what is listed on the official Instructional League roster the Cubs released.

This is because some players en route to post-season leagues often swing by Arizona for an overnighter or quick tune-up before arriving at their eventual winter baseball destinations. Felix Pie, for instance, stopped off at Fitch Park two years ago (before heading to the Dominican) for a course in Base-running 101, and the Cubs enlisted him the help of former major league outfielder Bob Dernier.

Conversely, there are some players listed on the initial Instructs roster that did not follow through with the trip. Andrew Cashner, the Cubs' first-round draft pick this June, is one of them.

The right-hander was originally one of the headliners of this year's crop but was given clearance by Cubs brass to stay home, in Texas, and tend to family matters in the wake of Hurricane Ike.

Ryan Acosta, a highly touted young right-hander who hasn't pitched in a live game since July anyway, was also on the initial Cubs Instructs roster but never made the trip. He is currently tending to "family business," the Cubs said.

Left-hander Mark Pawelek is a player that under normal circumstances would probably be in Instructs, but isn't. The Cubs' first-round draft pick in 2005 angered Cubs officials this past summer after his latest well-documented snafu a month ago, which involved failing to obtain a passport in preparation for an upcoming trip to Canada while pitching at short-season Class-A Boise.

"He violated team policy and he was sent home," a Cubs official said.

Most diehards that follow the Cubs' farm system closely need no introduction to what purpose the Instructional League serves to players and coaches, or its importance. Most every player on the Cubs' big league roster that came up through Chicago's farm system passed through Instructs at some point.

Instructs is "like a classroom," says Cubs Vice President of Player Personnel Oneri Fleita, who works with team coaches and roving instructors throughout the system each summer to select appropriate players for the Instructs roster.

But what criterion goes into selecting those players?

"We try to not just take guys for the sake of taking them," said Fleita. "Everybody that's taken goes in with a specific plan: everything from what they want to work on offensively, base-running, fielding and in pitchers' situations, they may be working on another pitch, holding runners, fielding their position, (or) hitting and bunting. Learning to run the bases is (also) a big priority for pitchers in the National League."

The work also includes strength and conditioning drills with many players getting a chance to learn more about their bodies. And starting Monday with head to head games, each day is capped by an exhibition contest against another Instructs team whose parent club is a member of the Cactus League.

But the most important part is the individual work with players.

"When they get here, our coaches sit down and write up a plan for the players and each player is brought in individually and has a chance to hear what we think of them. What's important is that we get their feedback to see if they agree with what we think their plan should be. It's all about communication and understanding that player's career comes first. What we're trying to do is make sure that we do what we think is going to help get them to the major leagues the quickest," Fleita said.

Instructs also serves as an opportunity to experiment with players at new positions.

"We've done that in the past," Fleita said with regards to shuffling players around. "Because we have a lot of infielders that are basically shortstops, they'll all get exposed to playing second base and third base, and understanding what the role and the responsibilities are at first and third. A number of guys maybe will be shifted to the outfield to give us a better look at what they're capable of doing.

"It's nice when you can go and learn and see what your partner is going through, as if you're a second baseman and understanding all the throws and pivots," added Fleita. "It's an opportunity to get everybody some at-bats, which is most important. And secondly, you get a real good feel for what everybody can do defensively and what type of flexibility they bring to the table."

One player changing positions is Robinson Chirinos, a career infielder in the Cubs' system that began the transition to catcher this past season and will use the Instructional League to better his skills behind the plate. Fleita singled out Chirinos because "he has made a huge leap during the conversion."

He noted that Instructs also serves as a way for players and the organization to learn more about each other since many players there were drafted recently and haven't been in the system a full year.

The Cubs' Instructional League runs through Oct. 11. A full schedule of head-to-head games is available here.

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