Billek Looking for Clean Slate

Practically anything that could go wrong for Cubs pitching prospect Mike Billek in 2006 did go wrong. The third-round sandwich pick from Central Florida in the 2005 draft battled through one thing after another this past season, including a drop in velocity and subsequent drop in confidence en route to an ERA of over six.

The 6-4, 235-pound Billek entered the year with high expectations after achieving modest success between Class-A Peoria and Low-A Boise in his first professional season following the draft. He was a lock for Peoria and the Midwest League when spring camp broke last April.

But Billek would soon be fighting an uphill battle that would continue all throughout the season after a slow start in which he opened with a loss in each of his first three starts, allowing 13 earned runs without making it past the fifth inning in any start.

Beginning with his next appearance, Billek was in the bullpen where he would remain through most of the remainder of his stint at Peoria. And with the exception of a rough outing on May 13 against South Bend, in which he allowed six runs and six hits to 10 batters faced, Billek had settled down enough to warrant a promotion to Daytona, and a return to the rotation.

Neither would last long.

After just five appearances – and only two starts – with the High-A club, Billek was being shuffled through the farm system again. Only this time, it was back to Boise.

"It was never meant to be a temporary thing," Billek said of his call-up to Daytona in early June. "It was something that hopefully was going to work out, but it didn't."

Among the many things Billek encountered along the way this past season was the aforementioned loss of velocity. It was "about a five to seven mile per hour difference," he said.

Gone was the low-90s movement on his fastballs, replaced by speeds in the mid-80s. (Billek features a four- and two-seam fastball, changeup, and curveball in his repertoire.)

Although he was injury free the entire season, the frustrations were starting to mount, and Billek's confidence was taking a hit.

"I think it had something to do with an arm angle change," Billek said of the struggles with his velocity. "My mechanics got a little out of whack and I didn't really pick up on it, so it just kind of got out of hand. It was affecting not only my velocity, but also my breaking ball and changeup because they weren't coming off such a powerful fastball. They were coming off of an 85 to 88 (mph) fastball instead of a 90 to 93."

It wasn't until Billek saw video of some recent outings that he discovered what he was doing differently mechanics-wise.

"I wasn't getting my arm up high enough, so I was throwing at a lower arm slot," he explained. "I wasn't really behind the ball. I was cutting it off at the side and not really getting that whipping action with my wrist. You can't survive on that."

Upon returning to Boise, Billek went back to work with David Rosario, the Hawks' pitching coach who had worked with the right-hander a year ago in his professional debut season.

But by the time he arrived back in Boise, Billek felt it may have been too late to turn things around this season.

"With everything happening," Billek said, "there was just so much I was trying to get done that it was almost overwhelming.

Sending Billek back to Boise was simple from the Cubs' point of view.

"They felt that it was best for me to go back to a level where I had had some success before," Billek said. "But it was like a snowball effect. I was too far down into it by the time I got to Boise that there wasn't really too much we could do. [The game plan was] get through the rest of the year, stay healthy, and get to the off-season."

That all happened without any glitches. The off-season is now here and the former standout under legendary coach Jay Bergman in college is ready for a fresh start. Being in a controlled environment for the next several months should only help the Clearwater native with his surroundings.

For now, Billek has only modest expectations for 2007. He also believes that pitchers at his level learn more from their mistakes than from any success.

Part of his learning curve is getting in the best shape possible this off-season. Like a lot of first-year minor league pitchers, Billek acknowledged that he didn't quite know what to fully expect coming into his first Spring Training this year, and that he could have been in better shape.

"I thought I was in good shape. I wasn't in bad shape, but I could have been in better shape," he admits. "My goals this year are to be in great shape and to be ready to go, and to have everything ready like day one of Spring Training was day one of the season.

"I made a couple of mistakes last off-season in regards to preparing myself," he said. "It's something I'll never do again because if I keep messing around, I'm going to end up looking for a new job."

Billek has learned from his mistakes.

"The mistakes I made, I just didn't work as hard as I should have," he said of his off-season regime last year. "I didn't prepare myself enough. There was no real clear-cut answer. I know that I need to put a lot more toward my weight training and my conditioning, diet, and everything to make sure I'm a baseball machine and that I'm ready to go."

"I'm just going to try to transform my body into the shape that I was when I was coming out of the draft," he said. "I'm going to go in with a clean slate and hopefully I'll get a chance to start in the Florida State League. Hopefully I'll have my confidence back and I can get back to my old ways. I want to chalk this up as a learning year and try to move on."

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