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New contract with Oneri Fleita raises questions in Cubs GM search

Oneri Fleita

Oneri Fleita

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Updated: November 22, 2011 11:13AM

Cubs owner Tom Ricketts might have been emphasizing a point by keeping player development director Oneri Fleita in the family before finding a new general manager.

Clearly, Ricketts intends to follow through on his commitment to revitalize the Cubs’ farm system. And clearly, the relationship he has developed in the last two years with Fleita is strong enough to trust what the 44-year-old intends to do.

‘‘At the end of the day, this is a match between Tom and I and something I believe in,’’ Fleita said Sunday. ‘‘The Ricketts family has been wonderful for the support they’ve given us. To me, it’s more about trusting the staff here and [ensuring] continuity.’’

It’s also about cementing a plan that started taking hold last season as Ricketts spent time traveling with Fleita to the team’s affiliates, both domestic and in the Dominican Republic, getting to know each other and essentially getting in sync on the future. Ricketts is pleased with what he has seen in Fleita, enough to make the farm system his foremost investment — and enough to stave off suitors.

The Detroit Tigers sought permission last week to talk to Fleita. Then Ricketts made the commitment to him, scrapping the final year of his contract in 2012 and finalizing a four-year deal.

It’s no small irony that Fleita’s growth in the organization came under his mentor, ex-general manager Jim Hendry, who Fleita said has been instrumental in his life.

‘‘He was my coach [at Creighton],’’ he said. ‘‘He’s been like a father, a brother, my friend. I’m indebted to him for my life [in baseball].’’

That’s why Ricketts was asked about Fleita’s future when Hendry’s firing was announced three weeks ago. Ricketts was candid in praising Fleita and scouting director Tim Wilkin but indicated the next general manager would have to have a free hand in hiring his personnel.

But now, the next general manager will have a development director in place. Will that change the dynamics for hiring a GM? Will it mean he has more responsibility for the major-league product and less for the development side? If so, will that influence the candidates? Will it open the door for someone without experience in the role because a development operation already is in place?

For his part, Fleita sees no problems ahead.

‘‘To me, this is more about the staff that’s here and keeping some continuity,’’ he said. ‘‘Obviously, when the next general manager comes in, hopefully we’ll be able to serve him well.

‘‘I think the general public doesn’t realize how many people are involved here. We want to win, and that will remain the focus. Roles are what you eat. Just make sure you do what you have to do to win.’’

Hendry’s departure wasn’t easy on Fleita, ‘‘but Jim’s always supportive of everything I’ve done,’’ he said.

More important now, perhaps, is Fleita’s belief that the Ricketts family intends to fulfill the commitment to player development.

‘‘The major change is the support,’’ he said of the ownership change from Tribune Co. to the Ricketts family. ‘‘How many owners go out and spend time with each one of the affiliates and in the Dominican and with the people who work in the office? That has been refreshing. I’ve gotten the chance to sign some international players this year that I couldn’t before.’’

Coming up is the construction of a 50-acre facility in the Dominican Republic for the team’s Latin American operations, as well as the new spring-training and instructional ­facility in Mesa, Ariz., expected to be completed by 2014.

‘‘We’ve been given the resources to compete, and that makes it exciting,’’ Fleita said.

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