Sunday, October 30, 2011

Q&A, Jason McLeod

As a boy, Jason McLeod liked baseball uniforms of brown and yellow. Others could have springtime in Paris. Twelve-year-old Jason preferred springtime in Yuma, the desert town where the Padres trained and where McLeod's father, a Marine, was stationed.

Padres games on television prompted Jason to grab a pencil and notepad. For reasons still not clear to him, he charted the work of Padres pitchers.

The Padres had wandered baseball's deserts since joining the big leagues in 1969. Here, in 1984, they returned the boy's affection by rising to the World Series.

Ten years later they hired McLeod, then 22 and coming off two years as a minor league pitcher with the Astros.

He worked as an intern in baseball operations and spun it into full employment. Went on to coach in the farm system. Scouted high school and college players in Southern California.

Unassuming and friendly, the native Hawaiian had a gift for people. He was befriended by two future Hall of Famers who played for the Padres, Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman. He also clicked with another young staffer in baseball operations, Theo Epstein.

The baseball world opened up further to McLeod when he met Jennifer Moores, the daughter of Padres owner John Moores and a presence in the Padres' community relations department. In time, they were married. Impressed by the young couple, Moores said his daughter would inherit the team someday and that his son-in-law would be prominent in the club's baseball hierarchy.

The marriage didn't work out, but McLeod found his way to baseball prominence nonetheless. By 2004 he was working for the Red Sox under Epstein, who had become Boston's general manager.

Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholtz -- those Red Sox stars were among the future Sox regulars whom McLeod drafted.

Although he celebrated World Series titles in 2004 and 2007, San Diego and the Padres tugged at him. When Epstein's assistant Jed Hoyer became GM of the Padres in November 2009, McLeod boarded a plane to Lindbergh Field and was put in charge of scouting and development.

Now, McLeod is again leaving the Padres. He's off to Chicago to tilt at windmills with Epstein and Hoyer, who will head baseball operations for the Cubs.

McLeod's decisions over the last two years will be felt at 19 Tony Gwynn Drive for many seasons to come. Draft selections on his watch such as Jedd Gyorko, Austin Hedges, Cory Spangenberg and Joe Ross are part of why Baseball America's Jim Callis tells this blog the Padres' farm system soon likely will have its best ranking since 2002.

The presence of Anthony Rizzo, Casey Kelly and Reymond Fuentes in San Diego's farm system bears McLeod's fingerprints, too. McLeod drafted all three players for the Red Sox and collaborated with Hoyer to bring them to the Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez trade.

This blog chatted recently with McLeod. Here, following, are the questions and answers:

Q. You're taking a job with the Cubs. Do you have a masochistic streak?

A. (Laughs) Of course, I know the history. It's kind of a perfect storm, if you will, with the timing of Theo going there and what was happening or not happening here.

Q. It's not easy for you to leave, is it?

A. It's bittersweet. I really believed in what we were doing here. San Diego is my hometown. I love being here and working for this team. I am excited about what we were doing with our draft and the farm system.

Even though Baseball America didn't give us a top-five for our draft this year, I think they're wrong. (Padres farm director) Randy Smith has done a great job in Latin America. I like what we're doing. To have to leave San Diego is really tough. But we leave with our heads held high.

Q. You are a great grand-nephew of Carl Hubbell, the Hall of Fame pitcher. Hubbell broke in with the New York Giants in 1928. Do you know he was five years old when the Cubs last won a World Series?

A. Holy Cow. Geez Louise. It's crazy. I probably didn't meet him until his early 70s, and his arm was permanently turned in because of all the screwballs he'd thrown.

Q. Hoyer still had two more years on his contract. Had he stayed, would you have stayed?

A. If there was a commitment to Jed to be the GM here, it would have made it very hard for me to leave. (The Cubs offered Hoyer a five-year contract, which the Padres declined to match.)

Q. Do you have any friends with the Cubs?

A. Obviously Theo. Peter Chase, the media relations director, we worked together in Boston. I had the opportunity to spend some time with the Ricketts family last week. Being around them, I couldn't be more excited about an ownership group. They're quality Midwestern people who want to see the Cubs do well and want to be part of something special. I'm really excited to work for them.

Q. You're also leaving behind some Padres folks who are close to you, aren't you?

A. (GM) Josh (Byrnes), (V-P of professional scouting) A.J. (Hinch) -- I consider those guys friends. Bud Black, Dave Roberts -- that (major league) staff, it's a special group of guys. Not only the coaches, but everyone -- (strength coach) Jim Malone, (trainer) Todd Hutcheson. Awesome guys.

Q. Drafting players is your strength. The Cubs have a director of scouting, Tim Wilken, who had a good track record for drafting players for the Blue Jays and has run five drafts for the Cubs. What role will you and he play in the draft?

A. I think that's still to be determined somewhat. Theo told Tim he'd be reporting to me. Timmy is one of the most respected evaluators in the game, as he should be. Over the years, he's been so open, and I've grown to have a pretty good relationship with him. On the road, we've had dinner together and talked baseball. He's someone in the game I respect tremendously. He's someone you want to ask questions. Essentially, 'Man, how have you done this?' I talked to Tim quite awhile recently. We have a really good relationship. I'm going to give him my ideas on how I would like the department to run.

Q. Before they hired Epstein, the Cubs extended the contract of their farm director, Oneiri Fleita, for four years. What's your relationship with him?

A. I didn't know Oneiri as well. He's had a lot on his plate here. He's been running the minor leagues, all of Latin America, international. It's a little similar to what Randy Smith has been doing here. I got to spend a few days with Oneiri (last) week in Chicago. He's a really nice guy. As we get our feet on the ground, I'll share my vision for the department and my thoughts at what we can do to be efficient, effective.

Q. Will you attempt to hire Padres scouts or minor league staffers?

A. You always try to get the best staff you can in place and hire the most talented people. That's really going to be a conversation that's between Jed and Theo and (Padres president) Tom (Garfinkel) and (CEO) Jeff (Moorad) and Josh over here. I'm sure there will be some restrictions on who we can or can't take. There are talented people over here. But at the same time, the Padres aren't going to let you raid their organization of the best and brightest.

I'm so proud of those (Padres scouts and minor league staffers). I thanked them for all the hard work, and the culture they've created.

Q. How much player talent is in San Diego's farm system?

A. We got talked up a lot in Boston because of the successes we had over there, but I don't remember having the volume of players that I consider legitimate prospects as I do now with the Padres. Now, a lot of them are below the Double-A level, and a lot of things can happen when they're making their way. To me, I think the Padres have one of the top five or six minor league systems in baseball. They might be better than that, for all I know. I'm really excited about that.

Q. What do expect from Gyorko and Rizzo in the next few years?

A. It's unfortunate that Anthony Rizzo struggled the way he did this year when he came to the big leagues. Certainly Rizzo's major league experience didn't go the way he or we thought it would. I believe in him as a player. He's 22 years old. I think he's going to be fine, and I think he's going to be fine fairly quick.

Jedd Gyorko is one of those players, he just hits, and he's a baseball player. You may be seeing him up here late next year. I think Jedd Gyorko is an everyday big leaguer who is going to hit. He's playing third, and I think he can stay at third. He's a thicker-body guy in the lower half. That's going to be an area of maintenance for him. But he's got soft hands. And he can really hit. He looks a little unorthodox, but, man, he can really whistle the bat through the strikezone. He can stay on the breaking ball, and he can pull the fastball.

Q. Does Cory Spangenberg stay at second base?

A. I think he does. Yeah. He played third base all year at his junior college, more based on need. So, getting him back over to second professionally, and playing him there...

The best way for me to describe Cory is, you know how Hunter Pence plays? He may look a little goofy, but he's a really good player. Cory is like that. You think you're watching someone in the 1940s who just plays baseball and hasn't been coached to look a certain way. But this guy rakes. He's a blazing runner who doesn't look like he is. He's a legitimate 70 runner with strength to drive gaps. I know when we drafted him, some people in the industry said he was just a signability guy. He fell to us.

Q. I heard the Padres rated their top draft pick in 2010, Karsten Whitson, as the best high school pitcher in all of the draft. He opted to go to Florida and had an excellent freshman season. Do you regret not signing him?

A. You're right. He was our guy. I really took a liking to him the prior summer. I love Cory Spangenberg. But I am still disappointed about Whitson. He is still the one who got away. Because the process was right. We evaluated him, we got him. Unfortunately, there was an agreement that went away. What can you say? He'll be a stud again, assuming he stays healthy.

Q. What do you know about the Cubs farm system?

A. From afar, it doesn't look like they have a depth of talent, although they did spend a lot in the draft this year, and I know they've got some high-ceiling guys with some risk. It SOUNDS likes it's a little more middle of the road system. Certainly there will be players who are in the big leagues in the near future who do well. (Brett) Jackson. (Trey) McNutt. Junior Lake is playing well in the Fall League.

Q. Among Padres prospects, who is a sleeper?

A. I like Juan Oramas, the left handed pitcher in San Antonio. He's probably the one guy that sticks out who is a sleeper.

Q. You and Theo were in a rock band in Boston. Will it be reunited in Chicago?

A. That remains to be seen. You've got to try to set a good example first. Theo actually plays music. I hack it up when I hop on the guitar. I'm sure we've got a lot of long hours in the next few months. The offices in Wrigley Field are extremely small when you compare them to San Diego and Fenway. There's not as much room to goof around. But I'm sure we'll find some time.

Q. Tell us about 1984, when the Padres and Cubs met in the League Championship Series?

A. I was living in Yuma. My dad was stationed there, a career Marine. I was 12 years old. And for whatever reason I got into charting pitches. I remember lying on my living room floor with a legal-sized lined notepad, and I would write down every pitch the Padres threw. I do remember going crazy, I'm going bananas when Garvey hit the bomb. My mom was a huge Padres fan, and I'm high-fiving my mom.

Then came the World Series, and it was 1-1 going to Detroit. I actually had the 12-year-old naivete to think we could sweep the Tigers in Detroit.

Q. What do you think of the chances we'll see a Cubs-Padres, LCS rematch in 2014 or 2015?

A. That'd be great. I would love it. That would be a lot of fun.

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