Live at CubsCon: Down on the Farm

Dave Otto is doing his usual hosting duties. He opens up by introducing the panel with Smokies announcer Mick Gillespie, SVP of scouting and player development Jason McLeod, farm director Jaron Madison, and Cubs pitchers Blake Parker and Justin Grimm.

Madison talks about the 2013 draft and how happy they were to land the people they targeted (Kris Bryant, et.al.).

Otto gives a recap of the minor league system, including the Daytona team that won the Florida State League championship.

Otto talks about how there used to be only one or two guys on the farm fans could get excited about. Things are different now with guys like Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, C.J. Edwards, Corey Black, Pierce Johnson, Jen-Ho Tseng, etc.

A fan asks about the plan with Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters. McLeod says the organization still has belief in both of them, especially Vitters, who has hit wherever he’s been and is still only 24. But both had rough seasons last year and were hampered by injuries.

Both Parker and Grimm talk about how rewarding it is to finally break into the majors and the belief they have in their ability. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth the grind.

Gillespie talks about how hard Parker worked back when he was with the Smokies in Double-A, and how much he enjoys seeing the players in their developmental phases. He remembers being the first guy to interview Darwin Barney after he got called up to the big leagues.

McLeod talks about the “Core Four” and how good they can be, but that the organization is much deeper than just them. Generally, you feel pretty good if you feel you have two guys who could become stars. He says the Cubs have multiple guys who could get there. Some won’t make it, but that’s why volume is important. Guys like Jeimer Candelario and Arismendy Alcantara could really make an impact.

McLeod talks about how he drafted Grimm out of high school and brought him up to Boston, but Grimm decided to go to the University of Georgia instead. McLoed jokes that Grimm just wanted a free trip to Boston. McLeod and Epstein went to see Grimm pitch in the SEC tourney the following year, and Grimm was pumping 97 mph fastballs. Epstein joked that he was going to fire McLeod for not signing Grimm. McLeod thanks Grimm for almost getting him fired.

Asked about routines and superstitions, both Grimm and Parker defer. Grimm does say he check through some pitching checkpoints on his iPad before games. It’s just stuff that helps him stay focused on his mechanics, etc.

One fan asks about the potential of Dustin Geiger. McLeod talks about how Geiger has been very solid but has been overshadowed by guys like Soler and Baez. He’s a big guy, so they are working with him on flexibility at first base. The front office doesn’t think he’s under the radar, but he doesn’t tend to get a lot of press. Geiger hit .281/.365/.458 at High-A Daytona last season.

McLeod talks about breaking the curse in Boston and how it’s better than he ever imagined. He also talks about the 2007 World Series team and how it was built with guys they drafted and developed. That’s what gets them excited and what they live for.

Parker explains the tradition of the youngest pitcher taking the pink backpack out to the bullpen. It’s just filled with supplies—gum, candy, etc. The guy with the least service time has to carry it out every game. It’s light rookie hazing.

McLeod talks about Arodys Vizcaino, who the club acquired from Atlanta in 2012. He had a setback after Tommy John surgery last year. He’s throwing well now but is not 100 percent yet. He was in the rookie development program this week and was really popping the glove (note: we were there, and he was). They are being conservative with his rehab to try to get him back into form.

McLeod responds to a question about the lack of system depth at the catcher position, and he says it’s definitely a concern. They have some young guys coming up, but they’re not quite ready yet. That puts some pressure on Welington Castillo this season.

Gillespie talks about how many guys there were at Tennessee who just need to take a step and they’ll be knocking on the door—guys like Matt Szczur and Christian Villanueva. Gillespie raves about Villanueva’s defense at third base, saying he’s better than most major leaguers. McLeod seconds how well Villanueva is progressing. The 22-year-old had 41 doubles, 19 home runs and 72 RBI last season at Double-A. He hit .261.

One fan asks about where Baez will play and if there is a path to the majors this year with Starlin Castro in the fold. McLeod says they’ll look at him in Spring Training and probably have him play multiple positions. But he will be the starting shortstop at Triple-A Iowa this year, and they see him playing short for the foreseeable future. He’s developing well at the position and has great instincts.

We get the obligatory question about Japanese free agent Masahiro Tanaka and about how his numbers will translate in the majors. McLeod says he’s incredibly talented, and they’ve been scouting him for years. The evaluation process is complete, and they met with him last week in LA. They’ll find out soon where he chooses. But any team will be happy to get him.

Madison says they generally want each player to “dominate” the level they’re at before they move up. They don’t want to rush players if they don’t have to because that can be damaging. It’s a lot of decisions to make about who goes where and when guys move forward, but there’s an entire staff in place to handle it.

Gillespie and McLeod talk about how complicated it is to put guys in a position to succeed. Roster management with the minor league system can be tough. Games are going on all over the country, and each roster only gets 25 guys. If one guys moves up, another guy needs to take his place, and keeping it all in order is tricky.

McLeod runs down the 2013 draft. The team was definitely looking to stockpile pitching. In 2012, they focused on high school arms. Last year, they focused on more mature college arms. In players’ first years, the organization really limits innings. Most of the new guys only go about 20-30 innings. But they did draft a lot of big-bodied, high-velocity pitchers.

McLeod talks about Mike Olt’s struggles last year with vision problems and concussion after being hit by a ball. He was untouchable at Texas a few years ago when they were looking to deal Ryan Dempster. Olt’s been meeting with specialists and is feeling very good. His swing looks strong, direct and fast. All the talent is still there, but he needs to start facing live pitching.

That’s it for Vine Line at the 2014 Cubs Convention. We’ll see you next year. Thanks for following along.

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