Fleita was in Eastern Tennessee on Wednesday to meet with area media, advertisers and Smokies season ticket holders, addressing the large group that gathered at the Double Play Cafe at Smokies Park to get some early insight on who might be in Double-A in April.
“This is a great time of year,” Fleita said. “We’re talking baseball.”
The announcement that Samardzija would likely start with the Smokies was welcomed by those in attendance. The right-hander was called up to Tennessee from Class High-A Daytona in early August of last season, and his pitching appearances drew large crowds.
“We look for him to start here this year,” Fleita said. “I’d like to see him start where he finished. I thought he made a lot of strides here last season, but this is certainly a good place for him to start. The pitchers get a chance to hit here, and he’ll get a lot more acclimated to the National League game.”
Samardzija, who had a brief stay in the bullpen following some early season struggles last year, will return to the starting rotation this season.
“He’s still got a lot to learn and I think pitching every fifth day and getting to work in between is his role and our approach right now with Jeff,” Fleita said.
There had also been some talk in the off-season of pitcher Donald Veal moving to the bullpen after he struggled last season in Double-A. Fleita said the left-hander would likely keep his spot in the rotation as well.
“He’s going to have to iron out some of the mechanical flaws he’s got so he can get back on track and repeat his delivery,” Fleita said. “When you’ve got a left-handed arm like that, you don’t give up on those kinds of guys. You keep them in rotation and I think things will solve themselves here sooner than later.”
The Tennessee bullpen meanwhile will likely be anchored by right-handers Rocky Roquet, who pitched for the Smokies last season after a June call-up from Daytona, and Jose Ceda, who can hit 98 to 100 mph on the radar gun.
Grant Johnson, a reliever who closed 2007 with some solid performances in Double-A, missed the final playoff series with a tired shoulder. Fleita said the Cubs expect a big year from Johnson in 2008, and that his placement will depend on how he does in Spring Training.
“He really started to become the person that we knew he could be,” Fleita said of Johnson. “It was more fatigue (with his shoulder). There was no surgery. Everything was healthy. This was the first time we got him through a season healthy, and we started to see the progress we were looking for so we shut him down for the winter. We’re looking for great things from Grant in ’08.”
Fleita noted that no assignments were set in stone yet (injuries, trades and Spring Training performances can alter who goes where), but he expects the Smokies to field a team that will compete in the Southern League.
The Smokies will have a new manager in Buddy Bailey, who switched places with Pat Listach, the Triple-A club’s skipper this year. Bailey has 18 years of managerial experience and was last in the Southern League with the Double-A Greenville Braves from 1988 to 1990. He has been with the Cubs organization since 2006.
“Buddy Bailey brings a lot of experience,” said Fleita. “He’s managed a lot of ballgames in his day. He’s currently in Venezuela. If they make it to the Caribbean World Series, it will be the fifth time in the last six years his team makes it to the World Series. He brings a lot of experience and enthusiasm.
“We’re very lucky to have him in this organization. The kids will play hard for him. Our players are very fortunate to have Buddy Bailey as their manager.”
The biggest applause during Wednesday’s luncheon came when two Smokies executives, General Manager Brian Cox and President Doug Kirchhofer, announced the team’s affiliation with the Cubs had been signed through 2012.
Fleita said: “I think it’s important. All fans want to know they can identify with a club. It’s nice as an organization to know where we’re going to send our players. We’re very fortunate. This whole area is great: the media coverage, our relationship with Doug and Brian Cox has been off the charts. That’s what you’re looking for. The whole goal is to develop players to play in the major leagues. Everything we have here in East Tennessee is frosting on the cake.”
Fleita minced no words when asked about the recent drug issues that the sport is enduring, noting that the matter needs to be negotiated with the players’ union.
He referenced the zero tolerance policy of the minor leagues.
“That’s the way to get rid of them,” Fleita said.
Fleita also took issue with a recent assertion by Baseball America that the Cubs are not committed to development, telling the assembled crowd to dismiss that notion.
“We’re there to win,” Fleita said. “That’s our message to our fans – one common goal and that’s to win.”
The Smokies are likely to get a top catching prospect in Wellington Castillo, who Fleita said reminded him of Yadier Molina, a former Smoky when the team was affiliated with the Cardinals. Molina’s jersey hung in the room where Fleita spoke.
“Very similar skills,” Fleita said of Castillo. “He will be a fun guy to watch. It’s real hard to get a ball past him and he can really shut down a running game.”
Fleita added that he expects Josh Lansford, the son of former major leaguer Carney Lansford, to be at third base for the Smokies.
“Exciting young man, can really pick it at third base,” Fleita said. “I think he’s ready to compete at this level.”
He said that Colvin, Matt Camp, Ryan Harvey and Corey Coles, the outfielder who was recently acquired from the Mets, are among the outfield prospects that could be in a Smokies uniform in April.
Harvey, the Cubs’ first pick in 2003, is hoping to stay healthy along with first baseman Brian Dopirak, a second round pick in 2002 that also has battled injuries.
“They hit balls that come down on the top of those hills,” Fleita said, gesturing out the window to the ridgeline above the stadium.
The names Fleita mentioned as starting the season for the Smokies speak to the depth of the farm system for the Cubs.
“We feel good about our pitching, but for the first time we have third basemen in the pipeline,” Fleita said. “You saw Kyle Reynolds. I mentioned Josh Lansford. Marquez Smith. Jovan Rosa is a name nobody mentions, and also Josh Vitters.”
Fleita also noted that Bailey would have options in the bullpen with Roquet, Ceda and Justin Berg, who both started and made relief appearances last season.
“It should make for a real interesting bullpen and one that Buddy Bailey will have a lot of fun mixing and matching and closing out some games with,” Fleita said.
The starting pitching could be stellar if Samardzija stays on track and Veal gets back to form.
For the first time, Samardzija had an off-season in which his focus was solely on baseball. Last year, he had just finished his collegiate football career at Notre Dame.
Fleita said he checked in with Samardzija, who declared the down time this off-season to be both welcoming and boring, and advised him that “baseball is a long season.”
“I think he’s got the whole package to be a superstar,” Fleita said.
Fleita also lauded the support shown to Veal, who lost his father in a scuba diving accident in November. Veal’s mother died of cancer in 2004, and Donald and his younger brother, Devin, have been left without parents and in need of financial help.
A trust fund was set up to help the pair, and signed items were up for auction in Tennessee on Wednesday, including a ball signed by Samardzija. Players, trainers, scouts and managers throughout the organization have donated to the fund, Fleita said.
“Hopefully we can see him through it,” Fleita said. “I’m 100 percent sure he will get through it.”
Some former Smokies will compete this spring for big league roster spots, including outfielders Sam Fuld, Josh Kroeger and Eric Patterson. Fuld ended the season in Chicago while Patterson ended it in Tennessee after being late to report to the ballpark and being demoted from the parent club to Double-A.
Fleita said that Patterson’s mistake holds no bearing on his status now.
“He made a mistake, and he paid dearly, but you learn from those mistakes,” Fleita said of Patterson. “We’ve wiped the slate clean. He’s going to go to Spring Training, and I put him in that group of guys that will be competing to be our centerfielder. He can play centerfield, he can play second base, he brings Lou (Piniella) some flexibility, he can run, he’s got a great eye, and he can handle the bat.”
“What happened happened,” Fleita added. “It’s over with. We all make mistakes, and I don’t think anybody’s holding that against him. We’re looking for him to go to Spring Training and have a good year and move on and help us win ballgames. He’s a standup guy. I look for him to have a good season.”
Ultimately, the goal is to get players to Chicago, and Fleita said the Cubs are well positioned with talent throughout the farm system.
“We’re very excited,” Fleita said. “We’re excited about the whole organization. We think our major league club is set to contend this year. We’re real excited about the direction things are going in. The whole goal now is to get to Spring Training, get out of there healthy and put some competitive ball clubs out on the field.”