Down On The Farm is a series where we go deeper with the Chicago Cubs minor league affiliates. We'll look into operations and cool stories, as we sit down with the people who work there. Today, we talk about the differences between the AAA Iowa Cubs and the big league Chicago Cubs
Over the last couple of weeks, I've been very fortunate to interview three different executives in minor league front offices. I've learned a lot, and rather than write a full book on it, we are going to be writing a regular series about the minor leagues: operations, player development, logistics, cool stories and more. I've gained a huge new appreciation for the minor leagues, and my hope is that you do so as well. Despite us starting up this series with my in depth interviews with Eugene's Matt Dompe a couple of weeks ago, I want to take a step back and go over some of the basics of minor league baseball today.
Going into these interviews, I assumed that minor league front offices would be in the inner circle with a Theo Epstein when it comes to player transactions. I thought that the General Managers from each minor league affiliate would have a weekly conference call with Chicago, and Chicago would outline a "this is what to expect" type of plan for them. Then each minor league team could prepare, and the entire organization could be efficient from top to bottom.
I was looking forward to my interviews, because I assumed I would be talking to people with "the know." Maybe they could dish a bit on what the organizational philosophies are when it comes to prospect development. With interviews set up with the Assistant GM of class A Eugene, the Assistant GM of class AAA Iowa, and the President himself of Class A South Bend, I was able to talk with people who were pretty high up on the totem pole. I was looking forward to a lot of insider knowledge on prospects. But my experiences were the exact opposite.
In the minor leagues, there are basically two different sets of staffs that operate. There's the minor league front office which generally consists of the President, General Manager, and numerous Assistant Managers. Then there is the minor league coaching staff, which is hired by the Chicago front office and assigned to a minor league affiliate. That coaching staff are all Chicago Cubs employees, with their paychecks being signed by owner Tom Ricketts. The minor league front offices are all employees of their specific team's owner, or just work for that franchise. The front office does not work in player development at all. Rather, their job is to maintain their stadium, and fill that stadium with fans. The coaching staff is who works with the players.
Throughout my interviews, I quickly learned this to be the case. My initial interview plan was to talk a lot more about player development, but I quickly cut down on those questions when I realized there wasn't going to be much material there. For the lower levels, it makes sense, because players aren't going to jump from a Class A team to the big league level overnight. AA maybe, AAA a lot more likely. So when I was able to chat with someone from AAA, I steered things back towards player transactions a bit. I felt that surely AAA would have to be within the inner circle, considering how many call ups and send downs can happen throughout the season.
Randy Wehofer, Assistant GM of AAA Iowa described it like this:
"We are dealing with the players that go back and forth, but we have no say in it. The way it works, is that the major league club provides the coaching staff and players. We provide everything that surrounds them: the best facility, best playing surface and the best atmosphere for those guys to train and get their work done. Then we run our business around that. Winning is a happy accident at the minor league level, when it happens."
Randy did mention that when MLB players are sent to the minors for rehab, the Cubs will often let the Minor league front offices know. If they have a few days notice, they can market that appearance to their fans, and get a bump in ticket sales. It's a mutually beneficial relationship, as the more tickets Iowa can sell, the better facilities they can have, which in turn helps player development. Iowa fans will fill the ballpark if they know that someone like Cole Hamels is going to be starting that night.
The Iowa Cubs can get some casual baseball fans to come because of their namesake and geographical relevance to Chicago. Each minor league affiliate will have their own unique challenges and philosophies, because they need to tap into their local markets a lot more than any big league team does.
There's a lot of depth to the minor leagues than I never would have thought possible. With over 160 different teams all over the country, each one has a different franchise, class and exact market. Because of this, each of these teams is run slightly different. There is no one size fits all when it comes to running a minor league baseball team. We're going to jump into the deep end with the minor leagues, so buckle up!