Fleita Cubs' MVP in no minor way

 
 
Published5/26/2008 12:19 AM

So who's your first-quarter Cubs MVP?

Would you lean toward offense with Derrek Lee and Geovany Soto, or do you prefer pitching with Carlos Zambrano dueling Carlos Marmol?

 

Here's one perhaps you haven't thought of yet: Cubs farm director Oneri Fleita.

"That's a pretty good pick right there," Cubs GM Jim Hendry said. "Where would we be without Soto and Marmol? Those guys should both go to the All-Star Game, and that doesn't happen without Oneri."

It was Fleita who convinced Soto and Marmol, as teenagers, to switch positions, and their conversions have played a huge role in the Cubs' fast start.

Soto, barring a complete breakdown, is headed for the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, and even if Marmol doesn't make it this year, his future role as closer will assuredly send him to the Midsummer Classic.

"Marmol was a catcher with a great arm, a great athlete, but he couldn't hit," Fleita said. "We suggested he try pitching, but he thought he could catch and hit. I said, 'Fine, try the outfield for a year and come and talk to me at the end of the year.' He really fought us on it and wanted no part of pitching, but he didn't hit.

"At the end of the year, he was all ears," Fleita said, laughing. "He said, 'I'll do whatever you want to do.' "

The rest isn't so much history as it is the satisfaction of seeing a young man succeed.

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"I'm just happy for Carlos because you could see when he was a (position) player he had no confidence," Fleita said. "But he had a rocket for an arm, and usually catchers who go to the mound throw strikes, and they understand the running game, too, which is an advantage.

"Then, that first day on the mound you all of a sudden see the glow, the confidence, that look in his eyes like, 'Give me the ball.' That's what you remember. That's what you live for in this job. Then you know you've got something."

Fleita was in a minor-league park the night Trevor Hoffman first took the mound after converting from shortstop, and even then the idea was far from unique.

"There's a lot of stories like that of truly athletic guys who needed to find a place on the diamond," Fleita said. "You have to give all the credit to the minor-league coaches and managers, guys like Rick Tronerud and Carmelo Martinez and Lester Strode.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"They're the ones who have to ride the buses and do all the work and help these guys get here. They handle all the emotions and the failure, the balks, and keep these kids working at it.

"We knew Carlos had a lot of gifts. Unfortunately, or you can say, fortunately for us, hitting wasn't one of them.

"And you have to tip your cap to the kid. Carlos was a natural from the start, with a lot of movement, and nobody knows where he came up with that slider. That's another story.

"But he got to the big leagues pitching backward. Usually, you get to the big leagues commanding the fastball and working on the breaking pitch.

"But he got here commanding the breaking pitch and unable to command the fastball. He's kind of figured it out on the job. It amazes me what he's done."

Soto, meanwhile, was a third baseman, but as early as the day the Cubs drafted him in the 11th round in 2001, they had something else in mind for him.

"We took him as a third baseman, but I remember when we were looking at him, our scout in Puerto Rico, Sam Hughes, said, 'This might be a good guy to draft and make a catcher.' He knew it then," Fleita said. "The question was, does he really profile as a third baseman?

"As he gets heavier, can you move him to first? Will he have enough power to be at first? He had a good approach at the plate, so you think that maybe catching is the answer."

The Cubs, just this season, converted Steve Clevenger at Double-A Tennessee to full-time catching duties, giving them a left-handed hitter with potential behind the plate.

"You look for guys who have a knack for it, and the personality for it," Fleita said. "The thing is, catching has to be first, and for a guy like Soto, it is.

"Yeah, he's great offensively, but catching was always first for him, and last year it all came together.

"(Catching instructor) Casey Kopitzke spent countless hours with him, and all the coaches spent hours with him, in the trenches, working to give you what you see now."

But it takes an entire village, as it were, to raise a catcher.

"Geo ought to send a Christmas card to Koyie Hill and Henry Blanco, because there's two very unselfish guys who were willing to help him and teach him, and that's a rarity in our game," Fleita said. "Koyie Hill wants to get up here, too, but they were there at Iowa (AAA) to feed off each other, to catch first and hit second.

"The best compliment you can get as a catcher is when a pitcher says he likes throwing to you, and guys like throwing to Soto and Hill."

And the greatest compliment a farm director can get is having the GM mention him as the club's MVP.

"You know what, I'm proud of all our coaches and managers, because they're the ones that make it happen, not me," Fleita said. "We've got a great bunch out there working hard and getting us players."

Two of them, named Marmol and Soto.

brozner@dailyherald.com

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