Atkins Readies for Spring Competition

Mitch Atkins is hoping to compete for a major league roster spot this spring. The right-hander, drafted as a prep standout in North Carolina in 2004, has spent the last five seasons in the Chicago Cubs' farm system and is one of the organization's top pitching prospects.

A season ago, Atkins made 18 starts and posted nine wins and a 3.76 ERA at Class AA Tennessee. He was then promoted to Class AAA Iowa and finished 8-1 with a 4.47 ERA in 10 starts.

He won 12 straight games at one point and was named the Cubs' 2008 Minor League Pitcher of the Year in a ceremony at Wrigley Field in September.

"It's always nice to be recognized," Atkins said of the award.

Now Atkins is preparing to take his game to the next level, hoping to earn a spot on the Cubs' 25-man roster beginning with his first career invitation to major league spring training.

"I have goals for myself," says the 23-year-old Atkins. "That's one of the goals."

Atkins has an impressive resume. He has won 10 games or more in a season twice, including a career high 17 a season ago. For his career, he is 44-27 with a 3.84 ERA, and 444 strikeouts to 189 walks in 546 2/3 innings.

His repertoire includes a four-seam fastball (regularly 88-92 mph), a slider and changeup. Last season, he introduced a cut-fastball to his arsenal that gave him another option to throw against hitters.

"I've been working on getting my two-seam fastball down," Atkins added. "It's the last pitch I've been able to get under control and it's still a work in progress right now."

Atkins isn't perfect. His pitching coach at Iowa, Mike Mason, said that his pupil occasionally made "Double-A mistakes" at Triple-A. Atkins had a tendency to leave the ball up in the zone last season, and that resulted in 25 home runs.

Mason said the home runs might be attributed to a flaw in Atkins' mechanics.

"He has a tendency … when he tries to do too much, his arm slot lowers and his ball kind of runs flat," Mason said. "That might be conducive to the home runs."

But Tennessee pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn said he feels Atkins is up to the task of pitching in the big leagues -- if not right away then soon.

"I think he can pitch in the big leagues," said Lewallyn, who has spent the last 13 years as a pitching coach, first with the Arizona Diamondbacks and now the Cubs.

"He was better at Double-A than everybody, and he had pretty good numbers at Triple-A," Lewallyn said of Atkins.

Atkins will be one of the new guys in camp this spring. He has yet to formally meet Cubs manager Lou Piniella, and he's never thrown in front of pitching coach Larry Rothschild.

He will have at least one ally in Koyie Hill, who caught Atkins at Iowa and served as a kind of mentor.

"I guess we'll see," Atkins said of what he expects from big league camp. "It'll be interesting."

Atkins might be a long shot for a starter's spot -- one was vacated when the Cubs dealt Jason Marquis to Colorado a month ago -- and he will face plenty of stiff competition.

Among those vying for a starting job at the back end of the rotation will be left-hander Sean Marshall, right-hander Chad Gaudin, and top pitching prospect Jeff Samardzija. The club could also make a trade for a starter.

But Atkins could still work his way onto the team as a long reliever or other bullpen role -- something that is fine with him, he says.

"I wouldn't mind that at all," Atkins said. "Pitching in the big leagues is pitching in the big leagues."

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