Lansford making transition to mound
Son of former All-Star, hitting coach stows bats
Let's say your dad is an All-Star infielder. He wins an American League batting title. He plays in three World Series. After his playing career is over, he becomes a big league hitting coach.
The dad's two sons had to inherit some of those big league hitter genes. But both Josh Lansford, a prospect in the Cubs system, and his brother, Jared, 23, a second-round pick by Oakland in 2005, now are pitchers.
It was a little tough for Josh to break the news to his dad, Carney Lansford.
"It was more shock than anything," Josh said.
Josh had a career .257 average after three Minor League seasons with the Cubs. The switch was suggested before the 2009 season. Carney Lansford, who was on San Francisco's staff last season as the hitting coach, consulted with Giants manager Bruce Bochy and pitching coach Dave Righetti and they came to the same decision the Cubs did.
"Third base is locked up [on the Cubs] for a long time," Josh Lansford said, "and I don't want to spend my whole career in the Minor Leagues waiting for a couple years after Aramis [Ramirez] is done. I just want to get to the big leagues as fast as possible. They said, as well as [the Cubs staff], that the quickest way to the big leagues, if you're blessed with a really good arm, is on the mound."
Josh, 25, has a really good arm. He was the Cubs' sixth-round selection in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft and heads into the new year with a full-fledged commitment to being on the mound, not the infield. He's got some big league help. Josh's agent is former big league pitcher, Dave Stewart.
"The great thing is he's athletic," Stewart said. "He comes into this with the one thing you need which is a great arm. Another factor is that the organization has had good success with conversions. When you put it all into play, I think it'll be a win-win for him."
The Cubs have had success at converting position players to pitchers. Both Carlos Marmol, who will be the Cubs' closer this year, and Randy Wells, who had a sensational rookie year in '09, winning 12 games, were former catchers. Rafael Dolis is another position player converted to pitcher, who posted a 3.79 ERA in 27 games last season with Class A Daytona.
Some players fight it. Robinson Chirinos wanted to be an infielder but had a career .247 batting average in the Minors in eight seasons. In 2009, he finally agreed to switch to catching and batted .300 at Daytona. This winter, he's starred in Venezuela, batting .366 for Magallanes.
"I told [Chirinos] he'd be coaching in the big leagues before he played [if he stayed in the infield]," Cubs player development director Oneri Fleita said.
Fleita made sure Wells talked to Josh Lansford last spring.
"[Wells] knew exactly where I was at," Lansford said in an interview last fall at the Cubs' facility in Mesa, Ariz.
Lansford had played at the end of the 2008 season with the Double-A team, batting .238. Instead of joining the Tennessee squad, he stayed in Mesa for extended spring training.
"The toughest part was when everybody was packing their bags to go back to [Double-A] Tennessee," Lansford said. "That's where I finished. I felt my team was going there and I wasn't going to be with them. I spent all summer doing whatever I could to play with my team, which was in Tennessee. That didn't happen, but there's always next year."
He finally joined Class A Boise and his first game was June 21 when he faced 10 batters over two innings, giving up two runs on three hits and striking out two. That first time on the mound was awkward.
"It was really weird," Lansford said. "My very first pitching experience since I was 13 years old was in a [spring] Double-A game up against Carolina. To be able to get those hitters out, gave me a little bit of confidence."
He got the first batter he faced to fly out to left.
"I felt like maybe I could do this," Lansford said, smiling.
In 22 games with Boise, he fanned 22 and walked 15 in 33 1/3 innings, compiling a 3.51 ERA. It was encouraging. Cubs Minor League pitching coordinator Mark Riggins and Boise pitching coach David Rosario were positive about Lansford's progress. After the season ended, he kept pitching in the Cubs' instructional league in Mesa.
"He's made a lot of progress," Fleita said. "He's one guy I'd never give up on -- he's got that mentality, that makeup."
In early November, Lansford married his high school sweetheart, Mallory. His next date in the offseason was with Stewart, who pitched in the Major Leagues from 1978-95 with the Dodgers, Rangers, Phillies, Athletics and Blue Jays.
"He struggled with his breaking ball a little bit, which you're going to do if you never had to throw one," said Stewart, who had a few bullpen sessions with Lansford. "I threw a forkball and he's got enough arm strength that I think mechanically I can teach him that and he'll learn it quick enough.
"He'll have the slider and forkball," Stewart said. "Once he does that, he's on the fast track for me."
Stewart, who played with Carney Lansford on the Athletics, is a perfect match.
"He has my kind of mentality, really aggressive, really fiery," Josh Lansford said of Stewart, who posted a 168-129 record in 16 seasons. "He'll be the best one for me to learn from as far as being able to control my emotions because we're such competitors. He has the same arm speed and arm style I do. I think if I go learn that forkball that made him a superstar, hopefully it'll get me up to pitch at Wrigley Field."
Lansford is a good student. It helps that he's grown up around the game.
"He's a quick, quick learner," Stewart said. "He enjoys learning, and the other part of it is, even more important, is that he wants to do it. First, you have to want to make the change to the position. At first, he wasn't that happy about it but he wants to do it now and he wants to be a big league player."
It wasn't the conversion that was difficult for Lansford to accept but that he wasn't able to hit at the Minor League level. He had a bat in his hands almost from birth. His father won the AL batting title in 1981 with Boston. How could Josh not hit?
"I think the toughest thing for Josh was grasping that the organization didn't have confidence that his ability to hit would come around," Stewart said. "He's always been a good hitter. Things just weren't coming around at the Minor League level."
Having his younger brother Jared also pitch makes the transition easier.
"I'm blessed with a great arm," Josh said. "It would've been a dream to play third base at Wrigley but it'll be just as important to pitch at Wrigley Field. That's my goal."
Lansford has had a few opportunities to go to Wrigley Field but keeps saying no. He wants the first time he steps on the field to be when he's on the Cubs' big league roster. That motivates him.
"I feel with my competitiveness and my drive to make it to the big leagues, there's nothing I want to do more," Lansford said. "That's all I think about at night. It keeps me up at night just thinking about different pitches and different ways to win. I'm going to find a way to get there. I will be there."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.