Dave Keller does it the right way down on the Cubs’ farm
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter September 5, 2013 9:48PM
Daytona manager Dave Keller goes over his lineup before Wednesday's playoff game. | Photo by Gordon Wittenmyer/Sun-Times
Updated: October 7, 2013 1:34PM
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When the St. Louis Cardinals add a player to their farm system, they give him a version of their “Cardinals Way” book, tailored to his position, with a sizeable section on Cardinals history, from Musial to Pujols, 1926 championship to 2011 championship.
The Cubs have one, too. They’ve rewritten and expanded it since Theo Epstein took over the baseball operations, with input from throughout the organization.
But look through the 300 or so pages of the all-inclusive version and there’s one thing you specifically won’t find: Any mention of histories or legacies.
The Cubs brass says that’s the part of the book they hope they’re writing the outline for now.
Nowhere has that chapter undergone more work this year than Daytona, where manager Dave Keller, pitching coach Storm Davis and hitting coach Mariano Duncan have seen 52 roster changes that have sent almost every impact prospect in the organization through their doors.
That included top prospects Javy Baez and Jorge Soler — since promoted and injured, respectively. It also included a group that outscored a Toronto affiliate 10-1 in a two-game playoff series sweep this week, featuring lefty slugger Dan Vogelbach, No. 2 overall draft pick Kris Bryant, and two dominant winning pitchers acquired in July trades: Corey Black (acquired from the Yankees in the Alfonso Soriano deal) and C.J. Edwards (from Texas in the Matt Garza trade).
“It’s been a really good team all year, and it’s been a good staff to work with them,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Thank goodness, because we’ve had a lot prospects at Daytona.”
Keller, who spent the 2011 season on the Cubs’ big-league coaching staff, might be the right guy at the right time at the advanced-A level for what the Cubs are trying to accomplish in the organization.
A former minor-league first baseman who got his teaching degree while he played, Keller took his first managing job since 1996 this season. He had managed nine years in the minors before that.
“I wanted to come back and manage where I knew I was going to be able to teach,” he said.
In one season, he and his staff might have had as much impact as anyone in the organization on the Cubs’ rebuilding process in two years — from the development leaps made by the system’s top pitchers to the attitude adjustments of fast-rising shortstop Baez and the nearly constant attention Soler needed in his first full season since he defected from Cuba.
“Every day,” Keller said of Soler. “It was constant. Mariano and I had him in our office every day.”
Even before — and long after — the infamous bat-wielding incident during that bench-clearing scrum the second week of the season.
“He just didn’t know,” said Keller, who like Duncan, is bilingual. “In no way, shape or form is it negative. He just didn’t know any better because everything that he did was accepted behavior in Cuba. The way that he acted, the way that he went about his business. It was totally different than what our expectations were here.”
Keller solicited the help of Cuban-born former big-league pitcher Danys Baez, Keller’s pal from the Cleveland Indians organization.
“It wasn’t that Jorge didn’t want to work,” Keller said. “You get him out there and he’ll work his tail off.”
Once Soler understood the expectations, “he took off,” Keller said. He was having an all-star caliber season before a stress fracture in his shin cut his season short.
It’s all about that teaching. Whether it’s the time he quickly shut down the postgame laughing and loud music after an ugly loss or the times he has leaned over to a player during a game to let him decide whether to hit and run.
“He’s got a really nice way about him,” Hoyer said.
“He’s up front. He’s honest,” Vogelbach said. “He’s going to tell you the way it is, whether it’s something you want to hear or not.”
As for what it means for the Cubs’ future if not their Way, Keller ignores the future as much as the front office ignores the past.
“It’s staying in this moment,” he said. “It’s about doing it the right way now, and then the next day doing it again. If the quote-unquote core guys stay in the now, in everything they do, on a daily basis, they’re going to get that they want at the end of it. They’re going to get what they deserve.”