The Next Left-hander?

MESA, ARIZ. -- John Koronka admits he will do most anything the Cubs ask of him in order to make a name for himself in Chicago as early as next year.

And so it's not surprising that that would include moving from the starting rotation, where Koronka has been the last seven years, into the bullpen. One of seven Cub minor leaguers (and three pitchers) in this year's Arizona Fall League, the left-handed Koronka has spent his last two seasons as a starter for the Cubs' AAA affiliate, the Iowa Cubs.

Now age 25 and with eight seasons of minor league experience between the Cubs and Cincinnati Reds, Koronka made his major league debut in June and remains a steady part of the Cubs' 40-man roster. He'd like to enter 2006 with a shot at the Cubs bullpen, if not the rotation altogether. In nine games in the Arizona Fall League, Koronka has not been scored on in 10 innings--all in relief. He has allowed six hits to go with 10 strikeouts and four walks.

"Being in Chicago and getting experience in all the different stadiums and the loud crowds was a good experiment," recalled Koronka, who spent the entire month of September with the club. "It's still a whole new experience to get up there and be able to just watch a game and take it all in."

A starter all throughout his minor league career with the exception of his short-season, rookie 1998 campaign, Koronka finished his second season at Iowa with similar numbers as his first. He went 9-11 with a 4.24 ERA in 23 appearances (21 starts) in 2005, and was 12-9 with a 4.34 earned run average in 29 appearances (19 starts) in '04.

There was little difference in the numbers, but a big difference in mechanics between the two seasons.

"Last year I was throwing a curveball as an out-pitch. This year I began developing a slider," explained Koronka. "I wouldn't say I have it perfected yet. About midway through the season is when it started getting really good and when I started throwing it on 0-2. I still mess up with it from time to time and leave it hanging, but that's the same with any movement pitch."

Koronka came to the Cubs in August of 2003 when he was dealt by Cincinnati for pitcher Phil Norton. Both left-handers were struggling with their respective organizations at the time of the trade, and Koronka had even been selected in the Rule 5 Draft the previous winter by the Texas Rangers. He was returned to the Reds with just over a week left in Spring Training and less than a year later found himself pitching for the Cubs.

"I don't know if I felt better this past year," Koronka said when asked to describe his first two years with the Cubs. "I felt more comfortable with the slider. Last year [2004], I threw a curve and at times I got a lot out of it and had good strikeout percentages."

But inconsistency with the breaking ball is what led to Koronka's development of the slider, he says.

"One area where the sliders helped was against the lefties," he said. "If the curve wasn't working last year, the hitters only had to guess at two pitches with two strikes on them. If I didn't have that curveball working last year, I'd really have to force good pitches with the fastball and changeup."

Currently the left-handed portion of the Cubs' bullpen consists of only Will Ohman and Glendon Rusch. Rich Hill was added to the Cubs' 40-man roster and also debuted in Chicago this past spring. Like Hill, Koronka will enter Spring Training hoping for a more permanent spot on the major league club in ‘06 than just the occasional call-up.

"When I go into Spring Training next year, I won't be like I was this year--nervous and trying to do a lot. I'll be calmer," Koronka said. "It's really, honestly not up to me as to how want to use me. It'd be great to be up there and help them out. If they want to put me into the starting rotation, that'd be fine, too.

"Hopefully, I won't see you in Triple-A next year."

Send feedback: walker@insidetheivy.com.


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