Stevens on short list for bullpen spots
Young right-hander takes aim at relief openings
MESA, Ariz. -- Greg Maddux has only been in the Cubs' spring camp for a few days but he's already had an effect on one of the young pitchers, Jeff Stevens.
Maddux, hired this winter as an assistant to Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, was standing behind Stevens during the right-hander's bullpen session in the batting cages on Saturday. The Cubs had to move the pitchers to the cages because of rain.
The assignment was to throw 20 pitches, rest, then throw another 20. Most pitchers use the time to work on their command. Stevens started his workout and Maddux made a suggestion.
"He's pretty soft-spoken," Stevens said of the four-time Cy Young winner. "He'd whisper one thing to you -- you're going to trust him. He said, 'Throw a slider here.' He would help me with sequence and gave me perspective.
"During the bullpen, you have a tendency to throw 10 fastballs in a row and 10 sliders," Stevens said. "[Maddux] was saying, 'When are you ever going to pitch like that?' You throw a couple fastballs, a slider, another fastball and maybe two sliders. There's no use in throwing 10 sliders because you're never going to do that [in a game]."
The philosophy is close to what Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo stresses, which is to have a plan whenever you hit. Instead of just throwing fastball after fastball, put yourself in a game situation. Throw as if you're actually pitching to a hitter.
"It was very helpful," Stevens said.
Stevens' session definitely sounded good. Because of the metal roof over the cages, every pitch he threw landed in the catcher's mitt with a loud pop. He joked that his morning Starbucks coffee wasn't the reason for the extra velocity. Maybe it was that the catchers are using new mitts?
"Throwing inside [in the cage] is a little different and you're not used to it," Stevens said. "If we could always pitch inside a poorly lit, tightly enclosed batting cage, I think I'd be all right."
It did help him focus.
"I was kind of locked in there," Stevens said. "You're not used to it and you have to adjust and focus on the mitt. That was one of the better bullpens I threw. Everything was down. Maybe it was good for me."
Having that pop adds an exclamation point to his fastball.
"It makes you feel good about yourself," Stevens said.
The Cubs did consider adding free-agent pitcher Chan Ho Park, who agreed to terms with the New York Yankees on Monday. Hendry is still in the market for an experienced right-handed relief pitcher but as of now, there are openings for the kids in camp.
Stevens joins a list of candidates that includes Angel Guzman, Justin Berg, Esmailin Caridad, Jeff Gray, and Mike Parisi. Plus, it's too early to tell where Jeff Samardzija, Tom Gorzelanny, Sean Marshall and Carlos Silva fit -- they're all contenders for the two vacancies in the rotation.
"This gives them a really great opportunity to establish themselves and get themselves in roles," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said of the pitchers.
Stevens, 26, is on that short list. He was acquired from Cleveland in the Mark DeRosa deal and began last season at Triple-A Iowa. He had four stints with the big league team, compiling a 7.11 ERA in 11 games. He did hold opponents scoreless in seven of his 11 outings.
"Last year, I learned that you need to throw a breaking ball for a strike in all counts and it's very helpful to pitch ahead," Stevens said. "The biggest thing is getting strike one. It's a big difference going from 0-1 to 1-0."
Last spring, Stevens pitched well. He'd like to follow that up with another this year.
"[Last year], I was trying to make a good impression," he said. "I was new, coming over in that trade. It's a little different now because I know everybody, people have seen how I pitch. You definitely want to come in and make a good impression."
His season was extended this winter when he pitched for Mexicali from Nov. 20-Dec. 30. It helped him get on a routine.
"For me, I knew I was going to pitch once every two days," said Stevens, who was managed in Mexico by former Iowa skipper Bobby Dickerson. "It was a more organized offseason routine. You can never simulate throwing to hitters. No matter how intense you try to make a bullpen, you can't simulate a game situation. It was really nice facing hitters in meaningful situations there."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.