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Cubs’ ‘Camp Colvin’ a concept that’s proving its worth

Tyler Colvmay not be thrilled with name Cubs’ camp — but he can’t dispute results. | GordWittenmyer~Sun-Times

Tyler Colvin may not be thrilled with the name of the Cubs’ camp — but he can’t dispute the results. | Gordon Wittenmyer~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 1, 2011 7:14PM

MESA, Ariz. — No matter what Tyler Colvin does for the Cubs this season or beyond, he already has made a lasting mark on the franchise.

Someday it might even be recognized by a sign at the Cubs’ Mesa, Ariz., training facility — maybe even T-shirts or sleeveless muscle shirts by next fall if guys like Cubs prospect Josh Vitters have a say.

‘‘Yeah, I get made fun of about it,’’ said Colvin, a promising second-year outfielder.

But when it comes to what the Cubs call ‘‘Camp Colvin’’ — with the half-reluctant consent of Colvin — it might be the Cubs’ player-development system getting the last laugh.

And that goes back to Colvin, whose success a winter ago in a rigorous, alternative offseason strength program after the 2009 season — which led to a surprise spot on last year’s roster and a 20-homer rookie season — helped inspire what the Cubs hope becomes a player-development tool as valuable as winter ball.

And, farm director Oneri Fleita said, ‘‘It was kind of by accident.’’

Colvin, a lanky, first-round draft pick in 2006, had injury setbacks early in his professional career that left him — even after three years as a pro — lacking the filled-out frame and strength the Cubs envisioned when they drafted him.

So as Fleita and Colvin talked about a planned winter-ball assignment in Mexico following the ’09 season, Fleita stopped. ‘‘And I said, what if we just go try to get you stronger?’ And he says, ‘That’s a good idea.’  ’’

Three months later, after a winter of heavy cardio and strength conditioning in Mesa, along with a structured nutrition plan, Colvin had added close to 20 pounds of muscle.

‘‘And you saw the results,’’ Fleita said of his breakout season. ‘‘And we said, ‘Wow, we’ve got something here.’  ’’

As Colvin’s power numbers piled up last season, the wheels in the Cubs’ front office turned, with the team investing money and putting a more formal plan behind the Colvin experiment to make it a bona fide part of the player-development process.

Strength coach Tim Buss runs the operation with minor-league strength and conditioning coordinator Doug Jarrow — a program that starts Nov. 1 and continues until spring training with very few breaks.

It includes 6 a.m. workout starts, three significant stages of endurance, strength and speed programs, nutritionist-planned breakfasts and lunches provided, and just enough hitting, throwing and fielding added in the final weeks to theoretically have a player in ideal shape and sharpness for the start of camp — some players on weight-gain plans, others on weight-loss or fitness plans.

Other teams prescribe conditioning programs, and the Cubs always have prescribed individual plans. But for its formalized structure, ownership investment and team-staffed, under-one-roof, extended-stay requirements, Camp Colvin is unique.

‘‘I’m definitely more prepared this year than I’ve ever been,’’ said infielder Vitters, another former first-rounder and one of 20 players who participated in at least most of the program this past winter.

But it’s not a program the Cubs are pouring volumes of prospects into. After Colvin’s fast-track success, players lined up for a chance to do the same thing, but the limited slots are by invitation only.

Part of that is out of necessity because there isn’t enough space and equipment for more than the 20 they accommodated this past winter — something chairman Tom Ricketts said he expects will no longer be a problem when the Cubs’ new training facility is ready for Camp Colvin, perhaps as soon as the 2013-14 winter.

A bigger reason for the invitation system is how serious and rigorous the program is.

‘‘You’ve got to be committed,’’ Buss said. ‘‘When these guys leave [after a day of work], they’re going home to take a nap. It’s not easy. And you learn a lot about players.’’

The Cubs don’t plan to scrap the traditional use of winter ball. But for an organization that until the last few years had one of the worst reputations for developing position players, Camp Colvin has become the latest source of optimism in keeping the recent wave of players such as Geovany Soto, Starlin Castro and Colvin coming.

Colvin still doesn’t seem too comfortable with the name that may one day wind up on the door.

‘‘I keep trying to say it’s the Buss Station,’’ he said. ‘‘But they like it, so I guess they’re going to keep it that way.’’

Either way, he was one of the 20 at the camp again this winter, and he plans to keep coming back.

‘‘Why not?’’ he said. ‘‘It’s worked for me.’’

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