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Minor-league system big contributor to Cubs' success
By Bruce Miles | Daily Herald Staff

Shortstop Ryan Theriot, left, and second baseman Mike Fontenot provided offensive and defensive sparks during the Cubs' drive to the postseason.

 

Associated Press

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Published: 10/2/2007 12:32 AM

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PHOENIX -- Walk into any of the Cubs' minor-league clubhouses and you'll find they have one thing in common: a TV tuned to the game being played by the big-league team.

"If there's any game on, that's the game we're going to watch," said outfielder Sam Fuld, a farmhand who got the call to help the Cubs in September and earned folk-hero status. "What's kind of odd is having watched them throughout the year and now being part of this. That's crazy.

"We've had a couple guys called up like Jake Fox and Billy Petrick. They're in your clubhouse one day, and the next day you see them on WGN. It's pretty amazing."

Call it whetting the appetite by way of dishing out big-league ball via the satellite dish.

The TV idea was the brainchild of Oneri Fletia, the Cubs' director of player development.

"That's something we've made mandatory because we play so many day games," Fleita said. "It's one thing to say the TV has to be on, but players aren't watching the game.

"But to see them up there huddled around the TV rooting for Sean Gallagher or Billy Petrick, it made it fun."

Life on the farm

The Cubs' winning the National League Central title also made it a good and satisfying year for Fleita and what many believe to be an unfairly maligned farm system.

It's probably safe to say the Cubs couldn't have gotten to the playoffs without healthy contributions from such players as Carlos Marmol, Fuld, Gallagher, Geovany Soto, Mike Fontenot, Kevin Hart, Petrick, Felix Pie and others.

And that's not even mentioning home-grown shortstop Ryan Theriot, who forced his way onto the team in spring training and became the starter.

Although Fuld and Gallagher have been sent to the Arizona Fall League for more development, Marmol will be one of the key guys out of the bullpen, and Soto may do much of the catching as the Cubs take on the Arizona Diamondbacks in the division series, beginning Wednesday.

As for the other aforementioned players, they all played bit roles in helping the Cubs get through some tough times during the season.

In all, the Cubs called up 17 players from their farm clubs this year, including pitchers Rocky Cherry and Clay Rapada and infielder Scott Moore, whom they traded.

The farm output represents a triumph for Fleita and the organization as a whole. Just a few years ago, the Cubs' system was touted as one of the tops in baseball, with such alleged prospects as Corey Patterson, Hee Seop Choi, Bobby Hill, Ben Christensen, Jeff Goldbach and David Kelton.

Most of those prospects ended up being suspects.

Nowadays, nobody talks much about the system, but the current crop of no-names already has made more contributions than those names of yore.

The Cubs say more is on the way with the likes of pitcher Jeff Samardzija and outfielder Tyler Colvin, thanks to scouting director Tim Wilken.

"I felt terrible for Oneri last year," said Cubs general manager Jim Hendry. "When the big-league club stinks, like it did, the GM should take his share of criticism.

"But to lump the farm system in just because the big-league club was poor was so unfair because, really, nobody even knew half the names they were criticizing."

Getting a taste

Watching the games on TV is one thing. Getting to play in the big leagues is quite another.

Whenever the Cubs called a player up from Class AAA Iowa or Class AA Tennessee, it sent positive vibes up and down the organization.

"There's definitely that feeling, especially in Double-A," Gallagher said. "When I got called up and talked to a few guys, the mood in the clubhouse definitely changed because we really proved that you're just one phone call away.

"The atmosphere in the clubhouse, as soon as the Cubs are on, everybody gets quiet. Everyone's watching the game closely and pulling for the team."

What impressed Hendry was how ready the kids looked, whether it was Petrick shining in relief or Fuld crashing into the ivy to make a game-saving catch.

"I couldn't be more thrilled with how the guys have come up and performed," Hendry said. "None of them have played scared. None of them played like they weren't ready. You can point to all of them and say they made a difference in at least a couple games here or a couple games there."

Hendry, too, marveled at Fuld's big catch against Pittsburgh in September, a catch that brought the house down at Wrigley.

"That's as good a play as I've seen by a Cubs player at Wrigley Field since I've been here," Hendry said.

The Cubs invited many of their prospects to big-league camp this past spring. They also loaded up their Triple-A roster last year with younger players, and at times they took their lumps.

But this year was different, both with the big-league club and through the system. And it had Fleita feeling like a proud papa.

"We wanted to get them a taste of what it's like to be in the major leagues," Fleita said of spring training. "Even if they don't get into the game, it means a lot to them. We want these guys to believe they belong with the Chicago Cubs.

"The toughest thing the last couple of years was to finally make a decision that we're going to take our guys and put them in Triple-A and live and die with them.

"Last year, we didn't have a very good year because of it. A year later, the guys have experience. A guy like Geovany Soto didn't have a great year (in 2006), but when he went back (to Triple-A) a second year, he got better.

"I thought this year was special because it allowed Soto to get those extra at-bats. That's what this game is all about."