Notes from Cubs Minor League Camp

The official start of the 2009 minor league season begins in one week and the Chicago Cubs, like most teams, are in the process of finalizing rosters for each of their four full-season affiliates. A large part of that process is deciding on who to keep and who to let go.

The Chicago Cubs have certainly let go of a number of familiar faces this spring. The most recognizable names are former first or second-round picks from previous drafts this decade that did not pan out. OF Ryan Harvey (first-round, 2003), whose career was already on life support, got the axe recently, as did left-hander Mark Pawelek (first-round, 2005) and right-hander Grant Johnson (second-round, 2004).

Chicago also parted ways with some lesser recognized players, such as right-handers Jim Henderson and Rocky Roquet (via trade with Oakland Wednesday), as well as catcher Tony Richie.

Cubs Vice President of Player Personnel Oneri Fleita said Wednesday that releasing players is always the most difficult part of any farm director's job this time of year.

"Every decision, and every player, is different," said Fleita. "You get the Ryan Harvey's that have been here for a while, and then you get the newly drafted kids that maybe just played the one year and they're out. It varies from one to the other, but anybody that tells you they enjoy this last (week) of the (spring) season and tells you it's easy, they should be in another occupation. This is my ninth spring training and it doesn't get any easier; if anything, it gets more difficult. It's hard to say you don't feel the pain these kids go through. It's a part of the business, but it's not easy."

Although the Cubs have not received much in the way of long-term production from many of their first-round picks since drafting Kerry Wood fourth overall in 1995, the club doesn't feel their recent drafts have been a total wash.

Fleita said he feels that often times too much emphasis is placed on the first-round pick of a particular draft class rather than the total sum of that class.

"You take Harvey's year and out of that draft you've got guys like Sean Marshall, who is your fifth starter," noted Fleita. "In Grant Johnson's draft year, you've got Eric Patterson, Sean Gallagher, Sam Fuld and Jerry Blevins, who have all gone up to the major leagues. I think we get wrapped up in the first-round pick, but I think when you speak about the industry itself, we constantly -- we all miss. You look at every draft and you like to think that if you take 50 guys in the draft, 50 guys will play in the big leagues. But the truth is, if you get two or three guys that play in the big leagues, it was probably a successful draft. That's kind of how I look at it."

ADIOS, ACOSTA

While few were taken by surprise to learn that players who had become stagnant the past few years were released, the decision to part ways with right-hander Ryan Acosta was seen as a surprise by many. A 12th-round pick from Central Catholic (Fla.) High School in 2007, Acosta signed for $225,000 and was ranked the No. 21 overall prospect in Chicago's system by Baseball America entering 2008.

The son of the late Cubs pitching coach Oscar Acosta, he pitched in just 11 games a season ago, mostly at Class-A Peoria before personal/family issues sidetracked him. After his release, Acosta was quickly scooped up by Kansas City and has spent most of his time in the Royals' camp with the club's Low-A squad.

"There were some personal issues," Fleita said of Acosta. "We had reached a point where mutually we thought it was time to go in a different direction and try to start new somewhere else. He's a nice young man who is still young obviously. These are tough decisions to make, but sometimes you reach a point that it's best that both go in a different direction, and we certainly wish him well."

'AHEAD OF SCHEDULE'

RHP Dae-Eun Rhee, who was 4-1 with a 1.80 ERA in 10 starts a season ago at Peoria, is ahead of schedule after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year and could be assigned to a club by late May or early June. Moreover, Korean shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, the biggest name from the club's list of international signings in 2008, is also ahead of schedule after undergoing Tommy John last year and is slated to make his professional debut for a short-season club this summer.

VITTERS IMPRESSIVE IN CAMP

Third baseman Josh Vitters has had a nice spring, said Fleita. "Josh looks great and is prepared to start the season," he said. Vitters, 19, batted .328 with five home runs and 25 doubles in 61 games at Low Class-A Boise a season ago and recorded a 25-game hitting streak. Vitters enters 2009 as the Cubs consensus top prospect and will likely begin the season at Peoria, though Daytona is not out of the question.

CUBS CONTENT WITH DOMINICAN FACILITIES

Are the Cubs looking to follow the path of many major league clubs by building new facilities or upgrading existing ones in the Dominican Republic? Not necessarily.

"Like everything, you build something and 10 years later it's not up to par with everybody else," said Fleita. "We're happy with our facility, but since then I can tell you that other clubs have gone in and built facilities that are nicer. We're always trying to do something to make the accommodations a little better, but for the most part we're happy with all of the facilities there. We're getting out of it what we need."

ON THE MOVE …

The fall instructional league is normally the ideal time to experiment with position changes, but the Cubs have had one player make the move to pitcher from the infield this spring -- RHP Gian Guzman, an ex-shortstop with a "great arm," Fleita said.

Guzman, 19, batted .202 in 33 games for Peoria in 2008.

Fleita said the club has been pleased with the progress of other recently converted pitchers.

"A lot of the guys who were converted to pitcher are doing real well -- Blake Parker, Jake Muyco, Rafael Dolis and Luke Sommer, so we've had some success," he said.

"You can't really right home to mom until you see them pitch in the big leagues, but we feel like we've created some value and made them a little better than they were."

INFIELDERS GETTING PLENTY OF OTHER REPS

If anything, minor league spring training serves as a time when most players get reps at a variety of positions. INF Marwin Gonzalez has continued to see playing time at second base, third and shortstop (plus the outfield) this spring after spending time at those three infield positions a year ago at Boise and Peoria.

Third baseman Kyle Reynolds has seen playing time at first base this spring, and shortstop Darwin Barney has gotten reps at second base. Nate Spears, Jonathan Mota and Matt Camp have also seen time at virtually all infield positions.

STATE OF THE SYSTEM

Fleita was asked to sum up the overall state of the Cubs' system in a few words.

"I'm real happy with our pitching," he said. "I think we've got a few catchers in the pipeline, and I think we're starting to become a little more athletic with some of our players … the Junior Lake's, the Ryan Flaherty's, the Marwin Gonzalez's and the Starlin Castro's. I'd like to see us become a little more athletic in the outfield. That's where I would have us at a low point."

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