Koerber Receives New Audition in Hawaii

Cubs pitching prospect Scott Koerber has gotten the chance to pitch in some new surroundings in the Hawaii Winter Baseball League this post-season -- as a starter. It's not the first time that the left-hander has alternated between roles in his playing career, either.

Throughout much of his college career at Michigan State, Scott Koerber (KERR-BER) was a position player. He spent four seasons with the Spartans, often playing first base. He closed out his college career with a .317 average in 166 games. A right-handed batter, he hit .352 with an on-base percentage of .465 during his final season with the Spartans.

Conversely, as a pitcher, Koerber appeared in 31 games (all but seven of which came as a reliever) at Michigan State and allowed 30 earned runs in 36 innings.

Why devote yourself to pitching when your bat is seemingly a force to be reckoned with? The answers always vary, but in Koerber's case, perhaps the most simple choice to make is when you don't have one at all; not if you want to make a living in the pro's.

"When I talked to a couple of scouts, they had mentioned pitching, but it was kind of 50-50," Koerber says. "I wasn't sure about it just because I had limited experience as a pitcher. I guess just not having pitched a lot, I was hoping to go as a hitter. It was something I'd done all the way out."

The opportunity to be drafted as a position player never presented itself. Despite his relative success at the plate with the Spartans, Koerber went undrafted altogether before receiving a call shortly after the draft from Cubs area scout Stan Zielinski in June, 2004.

"The day after the draft, Stan asked if I wanted to sign as a free agent," recalled Koerber. "He said, 'Well, you're going to leave your bat at home to come here and pitch.' It was kind of a surprise to me, but it was an opportunity to play professional baseball."

For the most part, Koerber has made the most of the opportunity. After posting respectable numbers for short-season, Class Low-A Boise in 2005, he held opposing hitters to a .220 average against at Peoria this past season and was called upon as a left-handed setup man for Chiefs closer Matt Avery.

Cubs Scouting Director Tim Wilken was among those who saw Koerber in the setup role at Peoria, and he believes the 24-year-old is an underdog in the organization's pool of pitching prospects.

"He's got a curveball that has a chance to be an out-pitch," Wilken said of Koerber. "His arm works well and he's a pretty decent product delivery wise for a converted guy. He was underneath the radar screen for a while, but ended up pitching pretty good in the second half. I got to see him twice and I was pretty impressed."

Shortly after Wilken observed Koerber as the season was wrapping up, Koerber learned through Chiefs manager Jody Davis that he'd be going to Hawaii to pitch in the reborn Hawaii Winter Baseball League.

At first, Koerber thought Davis was only pulling a prank. Little did Koerber know he'd not only be pitching in Hawaii, but that he'd also be making his first appearance as a starter since signing with the Cubs over two years earlier.

"I'd never heard of the league, so I didn't believe (Jody) at first," Koerber said. "I told him he was going to have to get someone to back up that story before I believed him."

Enter Lester Strode, the Cubs' Pitching Coordinator turned major league Bullpen Coach. It was Strode who informed Koerber that the Cubs wanted to see the southpaw get some more experience as a starter. (Koerber had made seven starts in his college career, but none with the Cubs.)

"Once I talked to Lester and he told me I'd actually be starting down here, I started learning more about the league," Koerber said. "I knew the pitching was going to be good and that I was going to be pitching in Hawaii. I couldn't complain about that."

With the North Shore Honu, Koerber has made eight starts, allowing 22 runs on 40 hits in 32 innings for a 6.19 ERA.

The talent of opposing hitters has exceeded the pitcher's expectations coming into the league, he says.

"I knew it was going to be a good league, but the players -- especially this late in the year when it's been a long season -- have swung the bat really well," Koerber said. "It's been tough going out there and facing them. You have to be on top of your game."

The league's championship game is set for Wednesday. It will match the Honu and the Waikiki Beach Boys.

While the results may not be where Koerber would like in Hawaii, the 6'4", 215-lb hurler has gotten some otherwise valuable experience as a starter in the short time he's been in the role. He's been able to adapt to more situations and work on more specific areas of his game that were previously limited during his tenure in the bullpen.

"I like going in and having that mindset of what you want to do," he said. "Being able to work out of jams whereas coming in from the bullpen to face a lefty, if you put that guy on, obviously they're going to go to the right-hander coming up. Here I can work on trying to get that groundball or double play and getting out of those jams. That's pretty much what I've enjoyed most out of starting."

Koerber features a fastball, curveball and changeup in his repertoire. His fastball routinely registers anywhere from 87 to 91 mph, but only recently has Koerber been able to put more focus on the changeup. That's because he was facing an influx of left-handed batters in his 38 appearances with Peoria, and throwing only a fastball-curveball tandem in most of those situations.

"Coming here, I've been able to use my changeup a lot more, especially in hitters' counts," Koerber said. "That's pretty much been my focus here, to get that pitch down so that coming into next season, I'll be able to utilize it a lot more."

Of course, Hawaii can't all be work, work, and more work. There's the cultural aspect to take into account. As one might expect, Koerber has taken advantage of the sights and sounds the 50th state has to offer.

"There's always something going on down here," Koerber said of Waikiki, where he and fellow players are housed. "We have two days off each week, so we've had a chance to rent a car and drive the island and see everything that you see in the movies -- the pictures, the surfing competitions, the body boarding."

And then there's the food.

"We get fed at the field every night, and I don't think I've ever had as much rice as I have here," Koerber said. "I don't know if I'll ever eat rice again!"

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