Mark Riggins on Double-A Prospects

It has been said that Double-A is a level that separates contenders from pretenders. Many pitching prospects in the Chicago Cubs' minor league chain opened the season at Class AA Tennessee and are facing challenges right away. Cubs Minor League Pitching Coordinator Mark Riggins recently spoke to about a number of the club's pitching prospects at Double-A.

Casey Coleman, the Cubs' 15th-round pick from Florida Gulf Coast University a year ago, is one such prospect looking to separate himself from the rest of the pack at Tennessee.

After signing with the club last summer, Coleman has moved quickly through the system thus far, going from Class Low-A Boise to Double-A in less than a year.

It's early, but Coleman has done nothing to disprove that he can handle such a big jump. The right-hander won both of his first two starts at Tennessee, allowing only one run and eight hits over 12 innings for a 0.75 ERA. He combined for 10 strikeouts and two walks in his first two outings.

Riggins said that Coleman, who sit around 90-92 mph with his fastball, put together a nice spring training and proved himself worthy of handling the bump up to Double-A.

"Casey and Jay (Jackson) both made the Double-A club and we put them there because we think they can both handle that level," said Riggins. "They're both out of college and they had location with their pitches. They had secondary pitches that they know how to use, so they made their case in spring training to make that club."

Where Coleman stands out, Riggins said, is his ability to keep the ball down in the zone.

"One thing about Casey is that he keeps the ball at the knees," said Riggins. "Last year, when I traveled around, he was the most consistent guy at throwing the ball at the knees. He works ahead in the count. He's got a real nice curveball and a really nice changeup. He just knows how to pitch, how to mix his pitches, and looks for hitters' tendencies.

"A lot of pitchers have the stuff, but it's their mindset and how they use their pitches and how they challenge hitters. Picking up weaknesses on hitters makes the difference."

Jackson for his part has had different results in his first two outings. The right-hander, a ninth-round Cubs draft pick from Furman a season ago, was tagged for six runs in four innings in his Double-A debut back on April 12 against Jacksonville. He rebounded somewhat in his second start, tossing five innings and yielding two runs and four hits while striking out six batters.

Jackson burst onto the prospect scene a season ago by posting a 2.88 ERA and notching 72 strikeouts in 50 innings between three stops – Boise, Peoria and Class High-A Daytona. His performance in the Florida State League postseason, in which Jackson tossed 5 2/3 scoreless innings, helped Daytona to the league title.

Riggins said Jackson earned his spot in the Double-A rotation out of spring training.

"Every place he pitched last year, he excelled," Riggins said. "He had a really good spring training at the Double-A level. The guy's a great competitor. He has four pitches to work with. He challenges hitters. It was a heck of a draft last year with him not in the top five rounds. That was a great pick by the scouting department."

One surprise and a late addition to the Smokies' rotation was left-hander Casey Lambert. Through his first two starts, Lambert had allowed three earned runs and eight hits over nine innings to go with four walks and one strikeout.

A sixth-round Cubs draft pick from Virginia in 2007, Lambert spent his first two seasons exclusively in relief. He appeared in 55 games a season between Tennessee and Daytona and had a 2.82 ERA in 67 1/3 innings combined.

Because of an injury in camp, the Cubs decided to try and stretch Lambert into a starter in spring training.

"In spring training, we were looking for another starter because Marcos Mateo came down from big league camp and missed a little time with a little shoulder injury. He was going to be our fifth starter at Tennessee, so we had to rehab him and at that point we didn't feel like he was able to start off the season and give us a lot of innings. He had to be built up," said Riggins.

"We were looking for a starter and I saw Casey Lambert one day throwing in a spring training game, and he was mixing three pitches pretty well. I talked to [Cubs Farm Director] Oneri Fleita about it and he said to go ahead. So we put him in the rotation and he's done really well. We're pleased with what he's doing. Casey likes starting and he told me in spring training that he really likes that role. Where it plays out, it's still undecided for his future."

Some might have been surprised not to see Alex Maestri in the Smokies' rotation. The right-hander, signed out of Italy in 2006, made 14 starts a season ago at Daytona and was 5-3 with a 3.69 ERA. He had a brief foray into Double-A last year, but tossed just 11 innings before being shut down with arm problems.

Maestri spent the off-season hoping to get in shape to return to starting and reported that his arm felt fine. But because of the problems that sidelined Maestri for the final two months of last season, Riggins said the Cubs wanted to play it safe.

"What we like to do is let some of our best arms get as many innings as possible," Riggins said. "We started Alex last year for the first half and … what that does is it gives the pitcher some innings to work on their pitches instead of an inning at a time or two innings. They learn how to pitch better and now we've put him back into the relief role.

"The injury, it kind of talked us into putting him back in the bullpen. We're trying to keep as many guys healthy as possible. Some guys are suited for starting and some guys are suited more for relief. It wasn't wrong that we [started Maestri last season] because he actually learned how to pitch better and perfect his pitches."

One pitcher looking to turn a corner and avoid an early season rut is left-hander James Russell. A 14th-round selection from Texas in 2007, Russell was the Smokies' opening day starter. But through three starts, he had allowed 15 runs and 24 hits in only 13 innings for a 9.69 ERA.

Russell started 2008 at Daytona, but would go on to spent most of the year at Tennessee with much the same results as his first three outings this season, allowing an excessive amount of hits (111 in 86 1/3 innings).

One of the knocks on Russell early in his pro career was that he lacked an effective breaking ball. Riggins said that since that time, the southpaw has developed a curveball as his out-pitch.

"His curveball was really good in spring training," said Riggins. "It's got a great break to it. He actually lives off of his fastball and changeup, and his curveball is his out-pitch. He just needs some experience. He was at Double-A a little bit last year and went back to Daytona. He came back this spring throwing really good with all of his pitches. We're looking forward to him giving us a lot of innings this year at Double-A."

One of the more interesting names in the Tennessee rotation is right-hander Hung-Wen Chen. An international signee out of Taiwan in 2007, Chen made 22 starts a season ago between Class-A Peoria and Daytona in his first full year with the Cubs and was 4-5 with a 3.37 ERA. He combined for 86 strikeouts and 25 walks in 128 innings.

Chen was fairly impressive in his first two outings at Tennessee, allowing three earned runs over his first 11 2/3 innings and striking out nine batters while issuing one walk.

"Chen started the year in Peoria last year as a starter and went to Daytona and pitched well to make the Double-A team out of spring training," said Riggins. "He's got a slider and a split that he throws. He's in the range of 89 to 92 (mph) and has very good movement on his fastball. He locates his pitches really well and he's also pretty smart at how to pitch. He knows how to mix his pitches."

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