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Future closer could be Van Buren02/23/2005 2:16 PM ET
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
MESA, Ariz. -- The Chicago Cubs need Spring Training to determine who will be their closer this year. They may not have to look too far to find their closer of the future in Jermaine Van Buren.
Van Buren probably won't be on the Cubs' big league roster on Opening Day. He's lucky to be in baseball at all. The right-hander was nearly released and never got above the Class A level in four years with the Colorado Rockies.
But Van Buren never gave up. And his determination could be a big positive in the future for the Cubs.
In 1998, Van Buren was drafted out of high school in the second round by the Colorado Rockies. That year, he went 7-2 in 12 games with a 2.22 ERA for Tucson in the Rookie League. He pitched in the Arizona Fall League, and made the AFL All-Star team.
But things changed. Gary Hughes, a special assistant to Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, ran into the pitcher in the Salt Lake City airport one day when Van Buren was on his way to Casper, Wyo., to try and revive his career with the Rockies.
Van Buren wound up in the Independent League in 2003. Hughes sent a scout to see him and he was impressed. The right-hander went 9-4 with a 3.07 ERA in 18 starts for Fort Worth. The Cubs signed him as a free agent in December 2003, and he opened last season at Class A Lansing. The Double-A West Tenn team needed a pitcher because of an injury situation, so Van Buren was promoted after three games with Lansing.
The Diamond Jaxx were short of relievers one game, and called on Van Buren in the ninth. He picked up the save, including an impressive strikeout against Prince Fielder. Van Buren came through again in the ninth in another game.
Last year, the right-hander went 3-2 with a 1.87 ERA and 21 saves in 51 games for the Diamond Jaxx. Even more impressive, he struck out 64 in 53 innings and walked 24. How did he become West Tenn's closer?
"By default, really," Diamond Jaxx pitching coach Alan Dunn said. "We gave him the ball and he showed great tempo of taking the ball, going and closing it out the first night. We gave it to him again, and he rode that and was a huge pickup for us last year."
The Rockies may not have known what to do with Van Buren. Now, he seems to have found his niche.
"It's just something that fit," Van Buren said about closing games. "Anything that would get me in the game, I'd take it. That's what happened, and I took it."
And now he's in the Cubs' big league camp. It's a long way from Fort Worth, Texas.
"Here's a guy who is the No. 2 pick with the Rockies and he came into the system and then got on shaky ground and never regrouped," Cubs minor league pitching instructor Lester Strode said. "No one had any interest in him after that and he went to the Independent League and he didn't give up on himself. He got his game back together, got another opportunity and took advantage of it."
"It was a long road, I know," Van Buren said. "It's just a lot of hard work I had to go through and a lot of things I had to realize. A lot of people contributed. [Dunn] did a lot. I appreciate everything I'm doing now."
The Cubs coaching staff gives Van Buren credit for figuring things out.
"It's not so much what we did with him," Strode said. "Here's a guy a little more focused and a little more determined based on the history he had prior to this, and he took advantage of that opportunity."
Van Buren is in the right place at the right time. It just took a few years to find it.
"He's a gamer, he competes well," Strode said. "He's a student of the game. He pays attention to detail, how he can best succeed in any situation he might be involved in. He's prepared mentally as well as physically."
For a pitcher who had never been above the Class A level, Van Buren ended the 2004 season pitching for Triple-A Iowa against Sacramento in the playoffs.
Asked what went wrong with the Rockies, and Van Buren says they tried to drastically alter his mechanics. He was totally out of whack. What about the Cubs?
"They let me be me," the 24-year-old said, smiling.
As the West Tenn closer, Van Buren showed a lot of swagger. He even got to select his music to announce his entrance into the game. It wasn't "Wild Thing" -- he says he doesn't know exactly what tune they played -- but it worked.
"It was nice little music to get me ready," he said. "It was extra motivation."
A native of Hattiesburg, Miss., Van Buren is a very polite "Yes, ma'am," and "Yes, sir" kind of guy.
"He's a nice guy, a great guy," Strode said. "But on the hill, you'll see a different demeanor. He's down to business."
As soon as the right-hander came into the game, Dunn said the Diamond Jaxx players had an Eric Gagne-like feeling. Game over.
"I think you have to have no fear, and just go in and think you have to get it done," Van Buren said.
He seems to have established a good base to handle the closer duties.
"Makeup is huge," Dunn said, explaining the intangibles needed. "How do you respond if you don't get the job done? That's as important as when you get the job done and maybe more so. You've got to come out the next night and be ready to go. He's been able to let the last one go and focus on his next outing. I think that's a huge part of closing the game out and I think that's one of the things he brings to the table."
In his first big league camp, Van Buren is surprised at how relaxed the players are. Veterans are offering advice. The Cubs wanted to expose the youngster to this.
"Any time you're in this environment and around some of the older guys, he's going to get a lot of knowledge," Dunn said. "Plus, it will help being in competition against big league hitters. That's going to give him a better understanding of 'What do I have to do to make the next step.'"
He's anxious for the chance.
"I want to show myself that I can compete here, just let myself know that what I did last year was solid and I can do it on a yearly basis," Van Buren said of his spring goals. "I want to show it -- and show them, of course."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.