Cubs Convention LIVE: Down on the Farm

We’re back live from the 2013 Cubs Convention, with a couple more panels to go. This morning’s session will cover the farm system, from scouting to player development. Jason McLeod, Joe Bohringer, Brandon Hyde, Josh Vitters and Chris Rusin. Here we go!

9:10 Gary Cohen, editor of Vine Line, starts things by talking about some of the overall progress in the farm system—he also mentions the February issue of Vine Line, which includes the annual Minor League Prospectus. Over 60 prospects profiled—don’t miss it!

9:15 Dave Otto introduces the panel, and we’re into questions. McLeod talks about the “Cubs Way,” which is all about defining how the organization is going to teach every prospect. Every organization does that to some extent, but McLeod says it’s all about accountability for staff and players.

“How to run the bases, defense, holding runners—it’s holding everyone accountable to do that. How are we going to teach our players and really impact every player in the organization. As a development staff, we talk about how it should be our goal to get every player in the minor leagues a cup of coffee.”

9:20 Hyde talks about the Rookie Development Program, held last week: Brought in 12 players—give them a feel of the city and Wrigley Field. They brought in speakers and introduced the major league staff.

9:22 On big league debuts: Rusin says that he told his family not to talk to him before his first game, reserving the celebration for afterward. Vitters said it was a great experience and a whirlwind—he flew out on his first at-bat but said the swing felt good.

9:26 Bohringer is talking about pitchers, starting vs. relieving. He says that early in pitchers’ careers, it’s often not clear which way a guy will go. A starter has to have a repeatable delivery and, unless you’re Randy Johnson, three pitches. In high school, a flame-thrower can get away with just one pitch, not needing the curve or change that will get upper-level hitters out. “A simple checklist for us is they have a starter’s delivery, a starter’s frame, a starter’s repertoire and a starter’s ability to throw strikes.” When players start to miss points on that checklist, they may say it’s a guy that fits better in the bullpen. “We have to kind of wait to see what direction they lead us in.”

9:29 Both players on the panel are working on their strength this offseason. Rusin says he’s also working on throwing strikes so that he can get deeper into games this year.

9:30 A fan asks about the pressure a player feels coming up from the minors. Rusin says he tries not to think about it, that he wants a clear head when he’s on the mound. Vitters tries to stay focused in the moment and not worry about the past. He takes a one-pitch-at-a-time approach.

9:34 McLeod talks about the big jump from high Single-A to Double-A. Once players reach Tennessee, a player’s position or pitcher’s role starts to become clearer. Hyde says that you have to be careful not to move players too early. The situation at the big league club plays a part as well. From a developmental standpoint, you want to make sure players are getting at-bats more than anything, and not to minimize a guy’s experience or value.

9:41 Rusin and Vitters are asked about the ups and downs that come with the big league shuttle. Rusin says you try not to get too low or take it personally but instead learn what you have to improve.

9:43 McLeod says the new affiliation with Kane County, just an hour west of Wrigley Field, is huge for the organization. Rehab assignments will be easer, and the front office will be able to make the drive after a Cubs day game and better monitor some of the guys in the low minors. Outside of that, McLeod says one of the biggest improvements in the last year was the installation of cameras at every minor league affiliate, allowing them to monitor progress on a daily basis.

9:46 Vitters says that he has to push the “on the radar” talk out of his mind and remember to play like he always has. Hyde praises Vitters’ season in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, particularly at his age. That first big league call-up can be difficult, but he’ll be able to learn from the experiences at Iowa and Chicago.

9:48 McLeod is asked about new minor league pitching coordinator Derek Johnson and says that he’s very intelligent and creative with pitchers. He’s also going to need to learn the entire system and a feel for the season. “We feel confident that, for the Cubs to get where we want to be, we have to make progress on the pitching side.”

McLeod says that Johnson had been recruited by big league teams in the past, but the reason he left a great gig with Vanderbilt is that he’s a local, Illinois guy. He’s going to build on some progress made on the pitching side last year and really leave his imprint with some of the great ideas that have already succeeded with former pupils like David Price.

9:50 A fan asks about Dan Vogelbach, a bat-first player in the low minors. Hyde says that he’s really going to hit—his performance pushed the organization to promote him to Boise, and he had a great month or so with the bat. He’s athletic and has made a commitment to improve his body. “He should be able to be a good defender. Whether we move him off first base in the next couple years remains to be seen. We’re going to let him hit and feel confident that he can be a middle-of-the-order bat.”

9:53 Hyde answers a fan question about how difficult it is to project when a player is ready for the big leagues. He says that Rizzo last year proved he was ready with a great first two and a half months with Iowa. With the Marlins, Hyde saw it with Giancarlo Stanton, who pushed his way to the majors at 20. Stanton was very raw, but Hyde reflects that his football experience and drive made him an impact player at a young age. He says you never really know when a player is ready but make educated guesses and have to hope you made the right decision.

Bohringer recalls one of the best young players he had seen: Bernie Williams. He saw him drop a bunt from the right side of the plate and make it to first in an outstanding 3.7 seconds. Then the next at-bat, hitting from the left side, he slugged a homer.

McLeod recalls seeing Vitters when he was just 16 and other special young players like Bryce Harper. When McLeod was with the Padres, GM Kevin Towers asked him to recommend a young player to acquire in a trade with the Cardinals. McLeod picked out former mid-rounder Albert Pujols, who was “decapitating pitchers in the Midwest League.” Obviously, they got someone else.

9:59 Hyde says that plate discipline is a tough area to teach. Anthony Iapoce is the new hire with James Rowson being kept as big league hitting coach. The whole organization has bought into the mantra of players getting a good pitch to hit and to stay in their strike zone, the areas where they have success. It’s about coaching the player—drills can help, but it’s largely about making players aware that it’s 100 percent bought into that philosophy.

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