Fleita on Injured Prospects, Draft

Oneri Fleita

DES MOINES, Iowa - Cubs Director of Player Development Oneri Fleita is quite the busy body this time of year. Between making all of the necessary stops on the minor league circuit, which this weekend centers around the Triple-A club, to playing his usual hand in annual draft preparations, his time is limited.

Fleita has been with the Cubs since 1995. He still presides over Latin American Operations in this his 11th year with the organization. Inside The Ivy was granted a few minutes of his time on Saturday morning to discuss several minor leaguers that fans and followers alike have had on their minds for some time now.

For starters, there's the obvious No. 1: Angel Guzman.

Guzman, signed by the Cubs just one month before his 18th birthday in December of 1999, hasn't pitched uninterruptedly in almost two years. He was shut down midway through 2003 at Double-A West Tenn, where he was 3-3 with a 2.81 ERA in 15 starts.

Guzman underwent season-ending shoulder surgery and did not resurface until the following May at Class High-A Daytona, where he struck out 40 batters without allowing a single walk in 30 innings pitched. Then, it was back to West Tenn. But after only four starts, Guzman was again shut down for the remainder of the season, this time due to shoulder fatigue.

Fast-forward to Spring Training 2005 …

Guzman appears in four games, including two starts. He is clocked regularly between 94-96 mph, Fleita says, and then is placed on the disabled list to begin the year.

Now, almost two months into the season, Guzman still isn't quite ready yet.

"Angel will probably start his throwing program in about two weeks," said Fleita. "He's had some forearm tightness. It's similar to a bad hamstring injury in that its just taken longer to heal than we would have liked."

Next on the list is right-hander Chadd Blasko, a 2002 first round pick out of Purdue that showed much promise at Daytona in an All-Star 2003 season, going 10-5 with a 1.98 ERA in 24 starts.

Entering 2004, Blasko was easily one of the most talked-about and genuinely exciting prospects in the Cubs' system. But he struggled from day one at Double-A, averaging over one hit per inning and struggling through an explosion in home runs by giving up 12 in his 13 starts. (The 12 homers were nine more than Blasko had allowed in all of the previous season).

In Spring Training, Fleita spoke to ITI and confirmed the 36th overall pick from '02 had underwent shoulder surgery. And on Saturday, he said that Blasko's return date was not as soon as what was originally expected (mid-season).

"Chadd will probably not pitch until 2006," Fleita admitted. "With the shoulder surgery, we just want to be careful."

Then there's right-hander Grant Johnson, the organization's first overall pick in last year's draft out of Notre Dame.

Going into 2005, Johnson was hoping to be ready by the time minor league rosters were finalized in April. Instead, he suffered a strained hamstring in February.

On Thursday, Johnson told ITI that he wasn't sure exactly when he'd make his professional debut. Fleita, however, was able to shed some light by saying, "Probably, we're looking at the next 10-12 days … Probably."

Johnson, who turns 22 in less than a week, also told ITI that he was 100 percent recovered from the hamstring problems, and that he has been working on fine-tuning his mechanics after having not pitched in a live game in almost one full year.

(Note: You can read more on Johnson's progress in an upcoming ITI interview with the Irish alumnus in the coming days.)

And what about left-hander Luke Hagerty?

The Cubs temporarily lost the 2002 first round pick from Ball State in the Rule 5 Draft last December, but got him back from the Florida Marlins late in Spring Training. He pitched in all of one game for the Marlins after being plagued with a finger injury. Before all this, Hagerty underwent Tommy John surgery in early 2003 and missed much of 2004 as well.

"I would say 2-3 weeks," Fleita said guessing of a possible Hagerty sighting. "We're not really sure just yet. As you know, something in his finger started acting up when he was with the Marlins."

And lastly, it's not every day that a player still listed on the 40-man roster of his club's official website has packed his bags and officially retired.

But that's exactly what right-hander David Crouthers has done.

Crouthers, a third round pick by the Orioles just four short years ago, was acquired in the Sammy Sosa trade with Baltimore that brought over infield prospect Mike Fontenot and second baseman Jerry Hairston.

Crouthers was a career 30-25 pitcher with a 4.07 ERA in 89 games—all starts. He had struck out 100 batters in three years of full-season action in the Orioles' farm system.

Yet the 25-year-old Edwardsville, Ill., native never threw so much as one pitch for the Cubs organization in a live game.

"Honestly, I can't tell you what his reasons were," Fleita said.

Fleita concluded by briefly touching on the upcoming annual draft. Over the past several years, the Cubs have leaned slightly toward college athletes with their first overall picks. Two of the recent exceptions are OF's Ryan Harvey (2003) and Luis Montanez (2000), originally a shortstop.

Fleita denies that there's ever any specific position the organization targets with their early round picks.

In March, Fleita told ITI: "We try to take position players in general. Some of the higher picks were Harvey and (Brian) Dopirak, but we're trying to have a little of everything. We've been fortunate to augment our draft with Latin America and kids like Carlos Rojas and Felix Pie, but Brandon Sing was a late-round pick (from Ill.) that has turned out to be quite a prospect. … You always try to get a left- or right-handed pitcher, and we've always been fortunate to get those, but you also try to mix in an outfielder or catcher. You're always trying to hit Bull's-eyes, and that's a little hard to do with the draft."

He reaffirmed that this weekend, saying, "It's never about any one position. We aim for the best player in every round. There's no one we're particularly dead-set on right now."

The 2005 MLB Draft will begin Tuesday, June 7.

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