Optimism abounds throughout Cubs camp

Piniella's influence trickling down to Minor League ranks

(Paul Gierhart/MLB.com)

By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com | March 3, 2007 5:00 AM ET

MiLB.com is spending the month of March visiting each Spring Training site in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues to report on the most significant stories involving each club's Minor League system as players get ready for the 2007 season. We'll find out who's impressing the organization, who's hot, who's not and sit down for an exclusive Q&A with a top prospect.

Team: Chicago Cubs
Location: Mesa, Ariz.
Date: February 25, 2007

Burning Question

How will the new big-league manager change, if at all, the scope and direction of the farm system?

It's not something that initially comes to mind, is it? Everyone wants to know how Lou Piniella will be able to turn things around at the big-league level, but it's not often discussed how he may do things differently in terms of dealing with the guys down on the farm.

First and foremost, it's important to know how he handles certain on-field situations, from bunt plays to cutoffs from the outfield. However differently Piniella wants some of those nuances performed, the entire farm system has to follow suit. Then there's the matter of just getting to know the new skipper's personality and what he expects or needs from his Minor League system.

"We're trying to create a great relationship with Lou Piniella and his staff," Cubs farm director Oneri Fleita said. "That's gone off the charts. Anytime there's a change, there's a new manager, you want to make sure you're on the same page. There's some tweaking there. That's gone well. There's a lot of excitement in the air. There's a lot of excitement at the Major League level, and you hope at this time of year that it trickles down the organization. Your players get the chance to sense that and feel it and you go off and have a great season.

"We just want to know what his expectations are because when players go up there, it's our job to make sure they're prepared and they know what his expectations are. At this point, it's been pretty simple. Most managers are the same. They like players that hustle, they like players that execute and they like guys who throw strikes. It's about cultivating that relationship and making our guys feel comfortable with him, so they feel they can make suggestions or they can ask questions, because that's how you get better."

Piniella seems more than welcoming in terms of letting some of the staff make suggestions. It helps having former Cubs Ryne Sandberg, Jody Davis, Bob Dernier and Mike Harkey on staff. One difference Fleita already has noticed is how Piniella has set up his communication system with Minor League coaches, managers and coordinators. While other skippers might want to do all of that directly, he's more of a delegator, asking the appropriate coaches to discuss things with the corresponding Minor League coach.

"He's put the emphasis on [bench coach Alan] Trammell to make sure he's in line with our infield coaches," Fleita explained. "He's got Ivan DeJesus working on bunting with the pitchers and Larry Rothschild, who we've had a great relationship with over the years, he's in charge of pitching. Gerald Perry's in charge of hitting.

"You can tell [Piniella's] a delegator. He's told his coaches, 'Make sure you line up with the rovers in the Minor Leagues.' It's their job to pass it along to the coaches and managers as they come into Spring Training."

Other News of the Day

Matt Camp was selected in the 13th round of the 2006 Draft as a center fielder out of North Carolina State. A senior signee, he hit .289 with 22 steals in 74 games with Boise in his debut. During instructs last fall, the Cubs toyed with the idea of having him play second base. He'd played some shortstop in college, so the middle infield wasn't totally foreign to him. Based on the work he did over the winter and how he looked in the Cubs' Minor League mini-camp, it's no longer an experiment. Camp, who agreed to make the switch, will play second this year and that could open some doors for him. The Cubs see him as a scrappy, Mickey Morandini type.

Also making a move is Steve Clevenger, the Cubs' seventh-round pick from last year's draft. A shortstop at Chipola Junior College, Chicago had him at second base in Boise, where he hit .286 in 63 games. Now the Cubs think he can take to catching and are working with him to make the transition. If it clicks, they'll have a prized commodity on their hands -- a left-handed-hitting catcher.

Throughout the Cubs' system, middle infielders are asked to work on turning double plays from both sides of second, and this spring is no different. There are a couple of reasons. First, flexibility increases value. If you're a shortstop and a second baseman gets hurt at a higher level, having experience over there could mean a promotion. Plus, you never know if you're going to be blocked at the big-league level. Any shortstop coming up in the Orioles system long ago had to know how to play second or third because of Cal Ripken Jr. Fleita remembers when he came to the Cubs in the mid-90s, all first basemen had to learn how to play the outfield because of Mark Grace's presence. Also, taking turns on either side of second gives each prospect an idea of what his double-play mate is going through on a regular basis. It's not just physical development going on in Mesa, there's plenty of mental exercise being done as well.

Five Questions with Donald Veal

MiLB.com: If you were to have dinner with a historical figure, who would it be and why?

DV: I would say Jackie Robinson. I'm in a baseball mood. He changed everything for African-Americans in baseball. That's the person whose mind I'd like to pick about what he went through and all his accomplishments -- his experiences of being the first African-American in the big leagues.

MiLB.com: What is your greatest accomplishment on or off the field?

DV: On the field, I have to say last year. Just moving up and having a good year, being successful in my first full year, not breaking down and getting hurt -- I was proud of that because that happens to everyone. Off the field, I would say just helping guide my brother getting to college, going through his processes and helping him grow as a man.

MiLB.com: Who is the most unusual character you've come across in the Minors and why?

DV: We had a crazy fan in Peoria. He just kind of followed everyone and tried to get real personal with everyone, tried to be your best friend. He wanted to go to dinner and you'd say, 'Dude, you're crossing the line a little bit.' And he'd just say, 'No, I just really love you guys.' There are a couple of guys on the team here who are pretty weird. I'm not singling anyone out. Everyone knows who they are. One is in big-league camp and one is with us, both pitchers. I'm sure that's all I need to say.

MiLB.com: What is your favorite aspect of playing in the Cubs organization?

DV: The support we get is unparalleled. Everywhere we go, every team I've played on, our home games, whatever league we're in, are going to be among the top. The fans and the boosters, they do so much for you because you play for the Cubs. Our fan base is just ridiculous.

MiLB.com: People would be surprised to know that I ...

DV: I'm a pretty normal guy. It would surprise people to know that I'm left-handed and I'm half-normal. No, I'd probably say that I love bell peppers. That's one of my favorite foods, just straight. My roommates think I'm a weirdo, just because I'll rinse it off, cut it up and just eat it. That's it. That's probably one of my weirdest quirks.

Lasting Impression

We'll be here all week. Tip your waitresses. And try the Veal. Again. While Fleita was pleased with the kind of shape everyone in mini-camp was in, Donnie Veal was one who really stood out. He looks ready to take the next step, is ready to mature and has been doing an oustanding job repeating his delivery.

Also on the mound, Chris Huseby is really opening some eyes. The 6-foot-7 right-hander didn't get to throw that much last summer after the Cubs took him in the 11th round last June, because he was recovering from 2005 Tommy John surgery. He came to camp 100 percent healthy and ready to go full-tilt. He's been throwing the ball extremely well so far.

Keep an eye on the left side of the infield. Both Dylan Johnston and Josh Lansford should be in Peoria to start the year, with Johnston at short and Lansford manning the hot corner. Johnston had to deal with multiple injuries last season, but it's clear he took the offseason conditioning program seriously. He worked out in Mesa all winter and came to camp much stronger with a maturing body. He could be a very nice offensive shortstop. The Cubs may not have a better defensive infielder than Lansford. Nothing gets by him and his release is so quick that first basemen on his team can't wander too far from the bag because the ball is on its way instantaneously. The Cubs are working with Lansford on being a little more patient and he's impressed with his all-around game this spring.

Parting Shots

Stop us if you've heard this one before. People in Cubs camp are optimistic. No, really.

OK, so perhaps Cubs camp every spring is optimism central. Perhaps it's here that the phrase "hope springs eternal" was coined. But Fleita and Co. just can't help themselves. They look at what's going on over on the Major League side and take stock of all the young arms they have -- both new to the system and ones working their way up or coming back from injuries -- and they can't help but smile and whistle a happy tune.

"Every year, every day, you have to be optimistic," Fleita said. "And that's in life in general. Anytime you stop believing that, it's time to change occupations.

"I feel like all of a sudden, we got healthy a little bit. I look at Tim Wilken's draft from last year -- Jeff Samardzija, he's about as a good an athlete that was taken last year, but that whole draft, with Rocky Roquet and Michael Cooper, taken or signed way down, Miguel Cuevas, in the 36th round ... he kind of put us back on the map with some of the arms. We had a great, great winter in the Dominican the last couple of winters and some of those kids are coming over this year as well. I feel we have our pitching back intact. We've got some depth at different levels. There's a lot of names nobody's heard of, but look for us to be really strong out on the mound and hopefully catch the ball real well at every level."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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