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Farm-system chief Oneri Fleita fired as Cubs’ shakeup continues

StarlCastro Cubs swings for two-run home run third inning Wrigley Field Wednesday August 15 2012 Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

Starlin Castro of the Cubs swings for a two-run home run in the third inning at Wrigley Field Wednesday, August 15, 2012, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 17, 2012 1:11PM

On Tuesday, Cubs players and front-office personnel posed for the annual team photo.

By Wednesday morning, the picture had changed dramatically for some of the longest-tenured in the organization as the changing of the guard under president Theo Epstein continued.

Oneri Fleita, the longtime vice president of player personnel, was dismissed in the highest-profile move, days after a shuffle of the scouting and player development department that saw Jeron Madison hired from the San Diego Padres to become amateur scouting director.

Fleita, 45, had been with the Cubs since 1995 and was responsible for the acquisition and development of most of the team’s high-profile Latin American players.

Also let go was Chuck Wasserstrom, whose position as manager of baseball information was eliminated. He had been with the Cubs some 25 years.

Ari Kaplan, who was in charge of statistical analysis, was let go as an employee but hired as a team consultant. Indications are that longtime director of baseball operations Scott Nelson will be offered another position in the organization as well.

At the same time, Epstein voiced support for assistant general manager Randy Bush, now the highest-ranking holdover of the Jim Hendry era.

‘‘Randy Bush is in very good standing,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘He’s a strong asset moving forward as we implement the new structure.’’

The firing of Fleita came 10 months into Epstein’s tenure, with Epstein saying the timing had to do with the coming end of the minor-league seasons and the review period for minor-league players before the start of Arizona Fall League play.

It also came days after Madison was brought in and longtime amateur scouting director Tim Wilken was promoted to a special assistant.

Only a year ago, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts had given Fleita a vote of confidence with a four-year extension after general manager Hendry was fired.

Fleita was close to Hendry, having first played for him in college at Creighton, but Ricketts sought to retain Fleita when rumors surfaced that other clubs were interested in him.

But Fleita had been pushed out of the loop in the months since Epstein arrived, bringing with him Jed Hoyer as GM and Jason McLeod as player development director.

Addressing the appearance of him cleaning house, Epstein said, ‘‘I know that’s always out there. It’s not a repudiation of any one department or the organization at all. It’s just the reality of our responsibility to set things up the right way. We’ve taken the last 10 months to really evaluate the organization. With the personnel, I think it’s my responsibility to determine the structure that’s going to put the Cubs in the best position going forward.’’

Epstein praised Fleita, who is free to join another organization.

‘‘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,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘He will be an asset to whatever organization he joins next.

‘‘He is so professional in how he handles things. I think he genuinely cares more about the Cubs and the people who work for him than of himself sometimes.’’

Epstein said a search begins now to replace Fleita as director of the farm system.

‘‘There will be internal candidates as well as at least one external candidate,’’ he said.

Fleita began with the Cubs as a Class A manager before moving into scouting and coordinator of Latin American operations and overseeing the minor-league system and international scouting in 2001. He became vice president of player personnel in October 2007.

He was instrumental in the acquisition and development of all the Cubs’ Latin American players and in the planning and development of the team’s new baseball academy in the Dominican Republic.

‘‘Oneri really played an intricate role, along with many others in setting that up,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘The work certainly continues.’’

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