Papelbon Ponders Future Role

Jeremy Papelbon began the year in the bullpen at Class-A Peoria, but he was moved into the starting rotation late into the season. Having started throughout his final college season, Papelbon was no stranger to the role. He isn't sure of the role that is in his future, but he has one simple hope.

"I hope they don't leave it up to me," Papelbon says with a good-hearted laugh.

Very seldom if ever do pitchers in the Cubs or any team's farm system receive the luxury of choosing whether they wish to start or relieve games, and Papelbon is fine with that trend staying just the way it is.

The left-hander enjoys certain aspects of both starting and relieving and could see himself in whichever role the Cubs decide to use him in.

He made 31 appearances in relief at Peoria, posting a 3.06 ERA in 61 2/3 innings. In the second half of the season, Papelbon made eight starts for Peoria, going 5-3 with a 3.18 ERA in 45 1/3 innings.

Given his past success as a starter with the University of North Florida Ospreys in Jacksonville, Papelbon was somewhat prepared.

"For the most part, it's something I feel like I'm really used to doing and doing well," Papelbon said of starting. "I started in college, but for the most part it's definitely a little different at the professional level. You're going every fifth day, whereas in college it's more only on the weekend."

So Papelbon has that going for him. It doesn't mean he is averse to relieving, which could very well be in the cards come next spring.

Right now, he is simply left to ponder.

"Wherever I'm at, I just want to put zeros on the board," Papelbon said.

It was prior to a game against Kane County in Geneva, Ill., earlier this year when Papelbon first warned of a potential shakeup in roles. There had been some internal discussions about whether to keep him in relief or give him a look in the rotation, he said in early July.

Now it would seem that giving Papelbon the go-ahead to start for Peoria was one of the last decisions that then-Cubs Minor League Pitching Coordinator Alan Dunn had made prior to leaving the organization last month.

Dunn relinquished his role with the Cubs to accept the position of Bullpen Coach on Baltimore manager Dave Trembley's staff. Previously, Peoria had been looking for help in their rotation with top pitching prospect Jose Ceda away from the team and on the disabled list while in Arizona.

"I guess he (Dunn) made the decision," said Papelbon. "Our pitching coach, David Rosario, came up to me and said, ‘I'm sure you already know that we need another starter.' They wanted to get somebody from our bullpen to start.

"I know we didn't really have a fifth starter. We were down to four and we had a couple of guys get bit with the injury bug."

And so the move to starting officially came to fruition on July 21 in a game against Fort Wayne, the San Diego Padres' Class A affiliate.

Papelbon gave Peoria five shutout innings of two-hit ball. Not a bad way to begin the transition and make a good impression on your club.

Though he would experience a few of the usual up-and-downs, Papelbon would go seven innings or more on three different occasions with Peoria.

That was a big boost to the southpaw's confidence.

"It was huge," the 24-year-old Papelbon said, recalling that, "for the most part, I just treated it one inning at a time. Out of relief, there were (nine) times that I pitched three innings. So when I was starting, I was telling myself, ‘I've thrown three innings, so what's another two on top of that to give me five?'

"Once I got to that, ‘now I can get to six or seven.'"

While Papelbon acknowledged that the experience of starting games in college gave him something of an upper hand to take with him to the hill in Peoria, that doesn't mean there were not adjustments to make.

Besides pitching every fifth day, there was also the matter of not relying too heavily on the strikeout, something that Papelbon admits took some adjusting to. (He had averaged just over one strikeout per inning in relief.)

"The first couple of innings (starting), David Rosario said, ‘Lets just get some groundballs and a couple of pop flies so we don't have you on a high pitch count and have the bullpen (stressed)," Papelbon recalled.

"It was kind of different to work that way, but then to see how it works, and once I got a couple more starts in, it was great," he said.

Papelbon also had to mix in his secondary pitches more frequently.

"When I came into a starting role, I found myself using my changeup a lot more than I did out of relief," he said. "A lot of hitters got out in front of it when I was starting and I could use it to set up my fastball. I had to work on it a little, but it came together real quick because I was throwing more pitches.

"Coming out of the bullpen, you know you're only going to throw maybe one or two innings so you can kind of go with a lot of fastballs or a few breaking pitches to really get (through) those two innings. With starting, I learned that by facing the lineup two or three times, you really have to have your secondary pitches working to be successful," said Papelbon.

He added: "The first inning when you start, you can get away with your fastball, but then you have to incorporate a changeup, a slider and your splitter."

Those were four pitches that Papelbon was able to mix in at various intervals during the count as a starter, whereas before featuring four pitches in relief just wasn't as much of a necessity.

Pitchers that throw splitfingers at the Class A level of the minor leagues are often hard to come by. But in Papelbon's case, it could be his best pitch.

"It's going great," he said of its development. "It's one of my best go-to out-pitches. I threw it like a split, but I guess the way I throw it or come through with it, it kind of looks more like a forkball. It's really working well for me. I would say it's more of a forkball now because of the action I get on it."

The only question now isn't whether Papelbon can start, but will he.

"That's a tough one," he said. "It depends on my development. I feel like I know how to start. I wouldn't want to start again in Peoria, but it would be a really tough decision."

And that's a big reason why he is glad it's probably not going to be his call.

"It could almost go either way," Papelbon said. "I've had a lot of success relieving and also just in the time I've had in starting. I've had a lot of success starting. Probably I'm more tempted to start. But if there was any doubt, I could always go back into the bullpen."

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