Just Another Name

MESA, Ariz. -- Right-hander Randy Wells is a lot of things. He's a 2005 all-star, often one of the Cubs' most overlooked pitching prospects, a catcher-turned-pitcher, and a starter-slash-reliever at that. But for now, he's just another name in big league camp.

Wells made his second spring appearance with the big league club on Wednesday, throwing two innings in Chicago's 13-8 loss to San Diego, one of three in a row now by the Cubs. He gave up two runs on three hits while notching a pair of strikeouts.

This year is somewhat different for the 23-year-old southern Illinois native, who begins his third year as a pitcher in the Cub farm system. (Wells was drafted in the late rounds as a catcher in 2002 before converting solely to pitching in time for '04.)

This year (at least for the time being), Wells is barking with the big dogs. And don't think it's business as usual.

"The atmosphere catches a young guy off guard," Wells said of being invited to big league camp. "I'm used to seeing guys that are more on a level playing field with me. You step out here and you've got guys like Barry Bonds taking batting practice, and it gets you excited."

"I faced some pretty big-name guys [on Wednesday] and it got to me a little bit," he admits.

Wells has worked hard to get to this point in his career, although he still recognizes there is a ways to go. At Class-A Daytona last year, he was 10-2 with a 2.74 ERA (good for fifth in the Florida State League) and a strikeout-to-walk ratio just shy of 5-to-1 in 41 appearances. He was promoted to Double-A for a short stint in mid-June and again toward the end of the regular season in early September.

To be blunt, 2005 was the best year of Wells' young professional career. As a result, he was honored as Cubs Area Minor League Player of the Year at an awards banquet in Chicago during the off-season in January.

"The whole process that I've been through, being a late draft pick and just sort of another guy in the organization – a ‘roster-filler' if you will - and then making the switch to pitcher, it's been a blast," Wells said. "To even be recognized at all is amazing. It's something I never thought would happen. It was an honor for me and my family to go up to Chicago and be treated like we were."

While Wells is pitching alongside some pretty notable names in big league camp this spring, he isn't losing sight of where he'll most likely begin 2006. That should be at Double-A.

"At worst, I'll probably go there," he said. "I doubt I'd go back to the Florida State League. I just want to keep doing good up here and continue to impress the coaches. The more they learn my name and see my face, it gives you a better opportunity later on in the year."

One coach who has already learned Wells' name and recognized his face is Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild. The two have already developed a nice rapport.

"I've got a good relationship with Larry," said Wells. "Being the young guy in camp, you don't always get all the attention thrown at you that you might get in the minor leagues from your pitching coach there, but Larry does a really good job with the young guys. He talks about the negatives, the positives, and puts it all into perspective."

It isn't just Rothschild who has been aiding and admiring Wells, either. He's also gotten help from some pretty noteworthy relievers.

"Scott Eyre, Ryan Dempster and Michael Wuertz have all given me some advice," Wells said. "I try to take as much away from those guys as I can. I talked to Greg Maddux about two-seam fastballs and how he gets such good movement, but basically I'm doing the whole ‘guy in the back row' thing. I try not to bother them too much. I know they have a job to do and I don't want to hound them too much. I'm just keeping my ears open and listening to everything they have to say."

Although Wells has been in Arizona since early February, it's still relatively early in Spring Training, and he's still trying to get back into his overall rhythm.

"Going into big league camp, I knew you had to be able to get at it right away," he said. "I wanted to be sure that my arm was ready and that my mechanics were fine-tuned so that when I got out here, I wouldn't have to worry about anything but throwing strikes.

"I'm still trying to get some consistency in me. I'm working on locating the fastball and trying to become honest with that. I'm developing my slider and changeup. I want to go into the year able to throw three quality pitches for strikes."

As for where he'll throw them, Wells says he'd like to make a run at Triple-A.

"After being up here and facing some of these guys this spring, it's really helped me overall. It's driving me," he said. "Double-A is probably a realistic bet to start the year, but I do want to make a run at that Triple-A club."

Wells wouldn't be the first to go from Class-A ball one season to the upper levels of the farm system and beyond the very next. Last year, LHP Rich Hill began the year at Double-A with near perfect command and stunning strikeout totals. By June, he was on a big league mound at Wrigley Field.

As for Wells, he seems content with being just another name in Cubs big league camp for the moment.

"Things are going pretty good," he said. "I'm throwing the ball pretty well. I got roughed up a little bit [on Wednesday], but things happen. For the most part, it's been going well. My fastball has been good and I've been locating all my other pitches for strikes. It's going well."

When the regular season kicks off, Wells' coaches will have to decide what role is best suited for him: starting or relieving.

Last year and in 2004, Wells did both. Primarily used out of the bullpen a season ago, he did make 10 starts for Daytona and proved capable of handling more than just a few innings at a time that a bullpen role allocates.

"My first year in Lansing as a pitcher, I started out as a starter and struggled pretty badly," said Wells, who was 4-6 with a modest 4.24 ERA in 15 starts with the Class Mid-A Lugnuts in '04. "I went to the bullpen and had a little success, so I always said that [relief pitching] fit my personality a little more. I really didn't like sitting four days between starts anyway."

All that was before Wells' all-star performance in 2005, however. After being promoted to West Tenn in June, Wells returned to Daytona and was thrust back into the starting rotation by manager Richie Zisk for a short while. He excelled.

"They put me in as a starter to get my groove back," Wells said. "I took the job and really enjoyed it. I love going out and trying to win the game. Right now, I'm comfortable with whatever role they decide to put me in."

In the meantime, he's finding plenty of inspiration from other Cub pitchers in camp.

"Look at a guy like Glendon Rusch, who's done it all," Wells notes. "He's made a pretty nice career out of himself doing everything from starting to long relief. If that's something I have to do, I'll keep my options open. As long as I have that uniform on, anything can happen."

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