“It’s a classroom every day,” Fleita said.
Earlier this month, the classes ended with over 40 different prospects on hand for the courses lectured.
Each year, the goals are simple only in that they vary from player to player.
“You have a chance to do a lot of things with a lot of different coaches,” Fleita said. “You try to create as much one-on-one or small group sessions as possible. You just try to take that into the game. You try to meet with each player individually and give them an idea of what we thought their strengths were, and what their positives and negatives were over the course of the season. Then, you want to hear feedback.”
The drills given to players in camp are countless. They involve everything from situational hitting to defensive work with backhanded plays, slow-rolling grounders, and honing work on double play balls.
There’s also the strength and conditioning factor.
“It’s a time of year when maybe you’re a little tired and you get a chance to learn a little more about your body, and what you need to do to prepare for the next season from a strength standpoint,” Fleita said.
And while several organizations (the Padres, for example) often hand down individual awards to players who participate in Instructs each year, the Cubs are not one of them. They say they focus more on team success.
“It’s just not a priority for us,” Fleita contends. “The priority for us is that they got their work in. It’s more team-oriented.”
Fleita also said that one of the first goals each year in camp is to establish trust, since many of the players on hand were drafted just months earlier and have less than a full season of professional experience under their belts.
“You want to get them to understand that you’re there for them,” he said. “From there, each guy has a plan.”
To get an idea of what those plans entail, Fleita said that from a pitching standpoint, the plans range from small tasks such as improving on first-pitch strikes, command of fastballs, developing second and third pitches, and of course, fielding.
“For the most part, everybody is there for fielding,” he said. “Holding runners, varying your looks, that’s also a common goal for most every pitcher.”
From a position player’s standpoint, Cubs coaches and instructors from the top down expressed base-running as a key emphasis all throughout camp.
“I think there was a stronger emphasis that we put on base-running this fall, and I think it’s going to become more and more important,” said Tim Wilken, the Cubs’ Director of Amateur and Professional Scouting, who was in town for several days to scout many of his recent draft picks and others.
With base-running becoming an even bigger priority, the Cubs enlisted the help of their former outfielder, Bob Dernier. It was Dernier who spent perhaps the most time in camp with consensus top Cubs prospect Felix Pie.
“For the first couple of weeks, all he did was go out every other inning and we’d tell the other team, ‘Look, he’s going to try to steal a base and he’s going to get three pitches to do it,” Fleita said of Pie. “We had Bobby in there to help us press [that] maybe it ain’t about just stealing bases; that maybe it’s about going from first to third or scoring from first on a double.”
Instructs is also a good time to test players at new positions. Three such players to do that in camp were Matt Camp, Steve Clevenger and Casey McGehee.
Camp was a 13th-round draft pick out of North Carolina State this past June and went on to lead the short-season Northwest League with 87 hits. He batted .289 in 74 games for Class-A Boise as the team’s starting center fielder, but spent most of Instructs at second base.
“With Instructs, you have a lot of experimentation,” Wilken noted. “You get Camp, who played second base most of instructs and looked pretty darn good at doing it. Some of the days, he wouldn’t play but he would base-run. That has to be one of his strengths.”
Clevenger, drafted six rounds ahead of Camp, spent his first professional season as the starting second baseman in Boise. After arriving in Instructs, however, he got some work in behind the plate, per his request.
Then there’s McGehee. He has spent all of the past two seasons exclusively at third base, but he’s a former catcher and could be heading back in that direction again soon, the Cubs say.
“Casey came back to work on his catching again. He’s thinking about going back into that again,” Fleita said.
With position changes, one thing to look for is position players attempting to convert to pitchers. Those in the Cubs’ system that have made the switch include Randy Wells and Carlos Marmol, but Fleita said he didn’t know of any position player’s off-hand that converted to pitcher in Instructs this year.
As for those players that needed work on individual aspects, Ryan Harvey was a shining example.
The Cubs’ first-round pick from the 2003 draft struggled mightily to open the year at Class A Daytona and hovered around the Mendoza Line through the first three months of the season. He turned it on in the second half and finished with a .316 average over the final two months.
“I noticed that he’s got easy power and it’s to all fields, from right-center on over to left,” Wilken said of Harvey.
As part of his scouting duties, Wilken spent time at every level of the farm system this season, evaluating players like Harvey that are already rooted in the system in addition to scouting venues like the Cape Cod League with the hope of getting a jump on the Cubs’ “Christmas list” for next year’s draft.
“I noticed that he’s got easy power and it’s to all fields, from right-center on over to left,” Wilken said.
What Harvey also has is a tendency to strike out. He hit 20 home runs and drove in 84 runs, but whiffed 125 times and drew just 25 walks with Daytona in 475 at-bats this season.
Thus, Wilken knows it’s a matter of Harvey making consistent contact.
“Hopefully there are some adjustments that he can make to be more consistent as a hitter,” Wilken said.
All in all, Wilken in particular said he was impressed by the work put in by those on hand for his first Instructional League with the Cubs.
“Guys worked on particular things that they were deficient on in the past year and just things that they were going to have to improve on going into ’07,” Wilken said. “There were pitchers trying out new pitches, that sort of thing. I thought it was a well thought out camp.”