Yesterday was a hectic day for the media, and undoubtedly a sad one for a number of folks in the Chicago Cubs’ organization. There were a handful of departures, and there are expected to be more. This is a process that started more than a year ago when General Manager Jim Hendry was fired (first in July, and then he officially departed almost a year ago to the day), and Cubs Owner and Chairman Tom Ricketts started the process of overhauling the operations of the Cubs organization.
I suppose it’s yet another reminder that these things take time, and that there is pain along the way.
The big departure yesterday was VP of Player Personnel Oneri Fleita, who was fired after more than 15 years in the organization. On the departure, President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein was complimentary, and Fleita was magnanimous.
“It’s been a really, really difficult day for everyone involved,” Epstein told Bruce Miles. “First I just want to thank Oneri. I know it was in the press release. He was a tremendous contributor to the Cubs for a long, long time and helped get the organization to the point where it’s at now. He certainly deserves everyone’s thanks and will be an asset to whatever organization he joins next …. Ultimately we reached the conclusion that there would be a change in personnel atop player development. Once we reached that determination then the question was if it would make sense to keep Oneri in the organization but in a different role and ultimately decided it was best for him and the organization at that point to move on. It’s hard, I’ve been around other situations where there’s a change in responsibility or a change in roles especially in the player development where hierarchy and reporting structure is really important. It can be hard to make that work. When I talked to Oneri about it he actually saw it the same way. He couldn’t have been more professional in how he handled things. I think he genuinely cares more about the Cubs, more about some of the people who work for him than he cares about himself sometimes. He was really impressive with how he handled it.”
“This is just the progression of things that happen in an organization when new people take over,” Fleita told ESPNChicago.com’s Bruce Levine of the decision. “I’ve enjoyed my time with the Cubs. I think we’ve accomplished a lot of good things here.”
So, both sides move on.
According to Dave Kaplan, Fleita had three years and $900,000 left on his contract, which the Cubs will eat (at least I believe they’ll eat the difference between that and whatever Fleita might make should he join another organization – you don’t hear about this offsetting much in the executive context (obviously it comes up regularly with respect to players), but I’m quite certain I heard about it when Josh Byrnes, who’d been fired by the Diamondbacks, was hired by the Padres). Tom Ricketts is getting blasted in all corners for his decision to extend Fleita last September, before Epstein had been hired. To that, I can say only: is $900,000 really that much to pay to ensure that your incoming President (1) has the opportunity to assimilate information and contacts from an important guy like Fleita, who’s been in the organization for more than 15 years and has a host of connections in Latin America, and (2) has the option of keeping an important guy like Fleita if he felt it was a good fit? When hiring Epstein, Ricketts explicitly told him that the decision of whether to keep Fleita long-term was entirely Epstein’s. Where exactly did Ricketts go wrong?
Epstein says he’ll consider internal candidates to replace Fleita, as well as at least one outside candidate. Does he already have someone in mind? The Boston Red Sox’s current Director of Player Personnel is David Finley, a guy who was rumored to be coming over to the Cubs last Fall, but the Cubs agreed in December not to take any more Red Sox employees for three years. Perhaps there’s some way around that, or perhaps Epstein will look at someone like Craig Shipley, who was his Senior VP of International Scouting and Player Personnel with the Red Sox, but who was dismissed shortly after Epstein left for Chicago. As near as I can tell, Shipley, 49, hasn’t taken a new full-time gig since then. Maybe Shipley has been hanging around for the last year, waiting on this opportunity? I’m only speculating, of course.
There’s more coming, too. Not only will the Cubs now be searching for a replacement for Fleita, but they’ll also be quietly letting go of some other folks in lower visibility roles, eliminating other roles, adding new roles, and hiring replacements. In sum, Epstein believes the front office’s recent expansion will continue. You’ll recall that, at the time he took over, the Cubs’ front office was one of the smallest in baseball.
Among the notable quotes on/reactions to/details about yesterday’s changes:
- Assistant GM Randy Bush – another Jim Hendry holdover – will remain in his current role. Epstein described Bush as in “very good standing” with the organization (an odd way to phrase that … ), and said Bush has been a big help with the transition.
- Also sticking around is important Latin America scout and Director of Latin American Operations Jose Serra. I wonder if he’ll be one of those internal candidates considered for Fleita’s job.
- As noted in the original post yesterday, Cubs “Manager of Baseball Information” (a title that probably sounded cutting edge 15 years ago) Chuck Wasserstrom was let go, and his position was eliminated. By all accounts, Wasserstrom was a likable guy and a good employee, but I suspect the changing times simply caught up to his role.
- Ari Kaplan, a stats guy brought in by Tom Ricketts, was “reassigned” to be a consultant to Ricketts. In other words, Kaplan’s formal role with the team was eliminated, and, probably because of his relationship with Ricketts, the baseball ops department decided he could keep a loose connection to the organization by way of a direct connection to Ricketts. (And, hey, if the Cubs are now in the business of adding outside “consultants,” might I submit my resume as an online media consultant? I won’t even ask for an office or nothin’!)
- Director of Baseball Operations Scott Nelson was offered a lesser role in the organization (I can’t quite tell you what the “Director of Baseball Operations” does, or what a “lesser” role might be).
- You’ll recall, this process actually started last week, with the hiring of new Scouting Director Jaron Madison (from the Padres), and the promotion of Tim Wilken to Special Assistant to Theo Epstein.
- Phil Rogers used the carnage as an opportunity to blast President of Business Operations Crane Kenney, a most popular whipping boy (something I still can’t tell whether it is deserved or not). Why wasn’t Kenney let go, too, Phil wonders. Well, setting aside the fact that the decision to let go of Fleita and Wasserstrom was Epstein’s, and the decision to let go of Kenney would have to come from Ricketts, the current reorganization process is clearly about the baseball side of operations. That’s not to say that business operations won’t also be shuffled at some point in the near future, but, for the purposes of personnel decisions, one has nothing to do with the other. There are any number of reasons to keep Kenney right now, however unpalatable his presence might be to some. The ongoing efforts to secure funding for a Wrigley Field renovation is obviously the big one. We don’t sit in on those meetings, so it’s hard to say how integral he is or isn’t to the process.
- Two of Fleita’s closest players – Starlin Castro and Carlos Marmol – reacted with sadness to the news. “I’m sad for him because I know Fleita and he knows me since I was 16,” Marmol said. “This is the guy that gave me the opportunity in the minor leagues and it was hard for me to hear that. He did a lot of good things for me and I feel very sad …. Oh yeah, no doubt [he was a father figure]. He knew me since I was 16 and I learned a lot from him. I feel very sad for him. He gave a lot of players opportunities, especially in the Dominican. He’s great out there and everybody loves him there. That’s what I see, everybody, players. He’s a nice person, too.” And from Castro: “I feel real bad. He was like my father. I talked to him all the time here and in the Dominican. I just feel real bad but it’s a business.”
- Carrie Muskat wrote about how devoted Fleita was to the organization’s Latin American operations.
- My lone personal memory of Fleita was meeting him, briefly – and as a fan, not in any kind of “writer” capacity – at the Cubs Convention this past year. It was at the “Cubs Prom” portion of the festivities, and Fleita stopped to chat with a group of us on the way to the roped off VIP area. He was incredibly nice, and was clearly having a good time. And he was rocking a jean shirt, to boot.
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