Bruce Levine interviewed Theo Epstein today on ESPN 1000. Much of it was the usual fodder, but Levine saved the most interesting question for last. Well, it was actually more of an open-ended question so it was the answer that was really interesting.
The question was about what Theo's biggest surprise upon taking over the Cubs.
The most pleasant surprise, Theo said, was the program and facility the Cubs had set up in the Dominican Republic. He said it's extremely well-organized, not like other camps where you "just see the ball being sprayed around". Epstein mentioned that the young players were always working hard and already fundamentally advanced. It's something that takes some time to build, so the fact that it has already been established has to be encouraging for Cubs fans.
The Cubs have Oneri Fleita to thank for that. It's no wonder now that owner Tom Ricketts made sure he kept him in the fold while the Cubs search for a GM dragged on. The people in the industry I spoke with had a lot of respect for Fleita and had no problems with the Cubs extending his contract. He's a guy that most teams would love to have in their organization. In my opinion, the hiring of Fleita may end up being former GM Jim Hendry's biggest contribution to what we all expect will be a first class organization within the next few years.
It goes along with something else Epstein talked about. With the limitations now imposed on the draft and international free agency, the Cubs will just have to be better at both scouting and developing players. The facilities and instruction in the Dominican Republic are a big step in that direction. It makes me excited for the development of talented high end signings like Marck Malave, Luis Acosta, and Ricardo Marcano (as well as Jeimer Candelario and Carlos Penalver last season) but it also means the Cubs will have an edge developing under the radar players. The Cubs can gamble more on high ceiling guys if they build a system where they can 1) identify players who have a lot of projection and 2) develop their skills from a very early age.
It also has to be appealing to amateur free agents in the next couple of years. Not just because it's a professionally run facility where they can learn and make the most of their ability, but also because it's a place that will allow them to return to their home (or closer to it) in the offseason and continue to work on their skills whether they are a recent signee or a veteran player already on the team. The building itself gives the Cubs a strong visual presence in the Dominican. Click this link to see more photos of those plans.
The Academy will have 4 fields, 4 covered batting cages, 8 bullpens. It will also have weight rooms, a cafeteria and kitchen, a video room, dorm rooms for up to 80 players and coaches, and an education program where players can earn their GEDs. It's a facility that can help young players in the area can develop and mature both on and off the field.
Ricketts and Fleita have given the Cubs a big head start and now, with the infusion of front office talent like Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod, plus a first-rate, well-organized academy, the team has the potential to become the standard when it comes to developing players in Latin America.