Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Jorge Soler are all currently playing in AAA for the Iowa Cubs.
The likes of Jeff Samardzija, Anthony Rizzo, Geovany Soto, and others having been there in the past, and Albert Almora, Addison Russell, and more are soon headed there in the future. It is pretty safe to say the Iowa Cubs have recently built a large following among Cubs fans.
While the best prospects are often housed at AA, those at AAA are usually the closest to being in the Major Leagues. It’s a level that’s considered a stop for prospects just at the cusp of the Majors, older guys with diminished skills trying to hang on, and fringe players who may be able to help the big league roster.
With all of that in mind, I reached out to Iowa Cubs play-by-play man Randy Wehofer for a Q&A session about him, his job, and the happenings of the Iowa Cubs in 2014 and for the future.
He graciously offered some really insightful comments about the Big Three, Manny Ramirez’s effect on them, the Theo Epstein regime, and more. Enjoy!
RD: Our readers may recognize you as the play-by-play broadcaster for the Iowa Cubs, but you also wear a lot of other hats for the organization. What else are you involved in and what kind of duties does that entail?
RW: I am also the Director of Media Relations. I am responsible for the game notes, press releases, roster maintenance, and daily baseball information for our website and media members. Working on that is also an important part of my preparation for the broadcast. I communicate daily with our manager about any potential roster moves and communicate those with the league office when they become official.
I am also the primary contact for media members requesting credentials and interviews with our players and staff. Scott Sailor and our media intern each year also play important roles in this area since I also travel with the team. I also contribute to updating our website, am in charge of our media guide, and assist with our other publications.
I am the travel coordinator for the team. In the off-season, I work with our travel agent to book all of our flights and any bus trips we may use based on our schedule. During the season, there is a lot of work to make sure we have all of the right names assigned to the airline tickets and adjust to player movement. We fly commercially, so there are a lot of rules and procedures to follow for the airlines and TSA. I mainly deal with the people in our traveling party.
I am also one of our corporate sales reps charged with selling any and all kinds of advertising we have available through the team. This is a year-long process that is unique for each client. I think that covers the big stuff.
RD: During my digging, I found out that you acted in the baseball movie “Sugar” as the play-by-play guy. Obviously that wouldn’t be much a stretch for you, but do you have an acting background?
RW: No acting background. When I was working for the Burlington Bees in the Midwest League, I received a call from Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. They are the writers and directors for Sugar. The movie was just in the idea stage for them at that time, but Ryan is a baseball fan and had read a story about the academies in the Dominican Republic that major league teams have. He wasn’t aware of that part of the game, and thought they could turn it into a good story.
They asked if they could spend a few days at our ballpark and interview some of the players and coaches as research for their movie. I helped facilitate that for them and they had a good experience. When we were saying good bye at the end of those few days, I let them know that if they needed a radio or PA guy for their movie to please let me know.
Several months later, they followed up and said they had a script and had the funding to make the movie and wanted to know if I wanted to audition for the part of the radio guy. I sent in a video to a casting director in New York and they picked me for the part. It was a great experience and I had a ton of fun watching how a movie gets made and being a part of that. That was all pretty lucky how it came together for me.
RD: You’ve been with the Iowa Cubs since 2008. In that time, you’ve broadcasted games for a handful of exciting and talented players (Felix Pie, Jeff Samardzija, Anthony Rizzo, and others), but you’ve never had a collection of guys like the one at Iowa this season. Have you seen a noticeable difference in the buzz around the team?
RW: I think it is fair to say that this team is receiving more attention from outside of Des Moines than any group I have worked with. This is similar to 2010 when Ryne Sandberg was our manager, but certainly a different dynamic with the players getting the attention this time. The reaction (sometimes overreaction) to everything Rizzo did with us in 2012 gave us a taste of what this season would be like.
Now that same spotlight is even brighter and being shined on several guys. Within our own market, we have enjoyed a great relationship with our fans and business community throughout the years to be one of the top-drawing teams in the PCL and that has continued this year. I think we are seeing a normal increase in ticket sales due to the team, similar to when we made the playoffs in 2008 and went down to the last day and lost the division on a tie-breaker in 2010.
RD: Neither of us are baseball scouts, but having seen Felix Pie, Josh Vitters, Brett Jackson, and others who have performed at Iowa but struggled in the majors, do you see anything that sets Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Jorge Soler apart as clear stars?
RW: In my experience, there is no such thing as a “clear” star. There are too many factors that go into becoming a great player, including some that are out of the players’ and organizations’ control, such as injuries. All of the guys you mention are different people and the human element is an important part of this whole deal.
No one can predict for sure how each guy will react to their successes, their failures, and the pressures that come with being a Major League player. Players improve and mature at different rates. Rarely is the best player in a group of 18-year-olds still the best player when that same group is 25, let alone 30, and beyond. All of these players have special physical abilities when it comes to baseball, but their work is really only beginning.
RD: Javier Baez struggled out of the gate this season. In your interactions with him did you perceive that any part of that was from the mental letdown of not making the big league team, and what adjustments have you specifically seen him make to become more of a complete ballplayer?
RW: Baez will be the first to admit that his numbers in April were a direct reflection of swinging at too many pitches that were out of the strike zone. Early in a triple-A season, he was facing pitchers almost every day that had big league experience and the ability to recognize that flaw and use it to their advantage. That is much less common at the lower levels.
His maximum-effort swing can also lead to troubles in maintaining consistency with his mechanics. Throughout this season, I have seen an improvement in his pitch recognition, but he will still strike out a fair amount of times. I also believe he has done a better job of moving his feet less to stay on balance with that ferocious swing of his.
RD: Who have you seen Manny Ramirez working with most often on their hitting, and who do you think he has made the most positive impression on?
RW: Manny talks about hitting with anyone and everyone that is within ear shot. He knows hitting and loves to hit. I can’t say that I’ve noticed anyone make big changes since Manny has arrived. Some players have talked about him watching a pitcher and giving advice to look for certain pitches in certain locations and his tips have been accurate and helpful.
From my perspective, the greatest thing that Manny brings to the table is the quantity and quality of work that he still does to maintain his own swing. That is a daily reminder to all of the players about how much work it takes to be a great hitter.
RD: You bring up how hard Manny works as a hitter. Who do you see on the current Iowa roster that employs that kind of work ethic?
RW: I can’t give a fair answer to this. For my job, I’m not in the clubhouse during the part of the day that guys are showing up to do their work in the weight room or in the cage before BP or after the game. Manny built his routine and reputation over many, many seasons. Part of the process for all young players in the minor leagues is finding the right routine that gets them ready to play close to their best every day.
RD: What kind of changes have you seen off the field with the Iowa Cubs since Theo Epstein was hired?
RW: I’d say the biggest change has been the advanced use of video. This is starting to become more common across the industry, but one of the first things that was instituted when Theo was hired was the installation of cameras at Principal Park and the assignment of a full-time video coordinator as a member of the staff that travels with the team.
It seems that this has been a valuable tool for both the evaluation of the players by the front office and for the players and coaches to use for developing the Cubs’ players and scouting the opponents.
RD: If Baez, Bryant, and Soler are with the Chicago Cubs next season, what kind of expectations should fans set for them?
RW: I grew up in suburban Chicago watching and rooting for the Cubs every day, so I think I have a decent feel for how Cubs fans think – at least the ones I still talk to all the time. Too often when things are going well, we immediately want to put a guy in the Hall of Fame and then fear the worst when the same guy goes hitless for three games and we think he has forgotten how to play.
If some of these young players get to the big leagues as soon as next season, I hope we can all enjoy the great moments and be patient with the struggles because there will be both. I think the time spent playing together in the minor leagues will be valuable for hopefully making this group a good team at the Major League level and not just a collection of talented individuals.
RD: As someone who is a Cubs fan to their core, step outside of your profession for a moment and tell me as a fan how far you think they are from winning a World Series and what you think they need to do to get there?
RW: I’ve always felt that the gap between the teams that finish with good and bad records each season isn’t nearly as wide as the fans or media make it out to be and I don’t think any team – in any sport – wins a championship without some amount of “overachieving” that year. That could be a breakout season from a rookie or young player, career seasons from veterans, or some unpredictable trend that boosts a club.
This is especially true once the post-season starts. In the current two-wild-card system, I don’t think it’s a stretch to think the Cubs could be in the conversation to make the post-season in the next season or two. As these young players mature into big league players, their play will improve and there should be enough depth in the minor leagues to acquire the pieces to fill the holes that will open up due to injuries or a position or two that can be upgraded from outside the system.
Randy gave me some really great stuff, and I appreciate his willingness to take time on a road trip to answer my questions. After reading about his job duties, you can see that he’s a busy man. I loved the analysis of Javier Baez’ mechanics and how he has adjusted as the season has gone along; it takes a person with a specially trained eye to assess a players’ abilities in such a way.
I look forward to hearing more from Randy as more talented Cubs prospects stop through AAA on their way to the Majors. And maybe another movie as well?
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Filed under: Minor League News