ASSOCIATED PRESS /AL BEHRMAN
Chicago Cubs pitcher Jerome Williams
closed last season with 2.40 ERA after Sept. 1. Above, Williams throws against the Cincinnati Reds in the first inning, Monday, July 18, 2005, in Cincinnati.
Williams has shot at Cubs rotation
The Waipahu grad's chances depend on his performance -- and injuries
MESA, Ariz. » Ability aside, fate may determine the status of Jerome Williams this spring.
Williams, who was born in Honolulu and calls Waipahu home, is battling for a spot in the Chicago Cubs rotation, but considers himself on the outside looking in.
That's not necessarily how the Cubs look at his situation, and his fate could be already determined.
If Williams can jump into the starting rotation, it will be up to the 24-year-old right-hander to stay on the mound every five days.
Two starters -- right-handers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior -- are being brought along very slowly this spring because of past injuries, and Williams may be the beneficiary. Wood, coming off arthroscopic shoulder surgery last Aug. 31 is throwing lightly in camp, and is expected to miss the opening two weeks of the regular season. Prior has a history of serious injuries and slow springs.
Plus, Greg Maddux is 40 years old, and his status in the rotation is still to be determined.
With potential openings, Williams said he is ready to compete.
"Hopefully, I can contribute," he said the other day sitting in front of his locker in the Cubs' clubhouse here. "I think we have a great staff and if we remain healthy, we'll go somewhere. I'm not guaranteed a spot in the rotation until I prove myself."
Williams has already turned a few heads in the Cubs organization. That was by way of San Francisco, which traded him to Chicago for reliever LaTroy Hawkins last May. Following his arrival, Williams was quickly assigned to Iowa, the Cubs' Triple-A affiliate, and stayed there until a June 21 recall.
He made his initial start for the Cubs that day in Milwaukee and earned a 4-2 Chicago victory. In that start, he threw seven innings, allowing three hits and two runs. He went on to compile a 6-8 mark and a 3.91 earned-run average.
Not considered a flame thrower, Williams uses finesse, and he has a penchant for keeping hitters guessing.
"I tell myself, 'Just throw and don't think too much,' " he said. "If you start thinking and analyzing too much, you can really mess up things. Just get the guy out any way possible."
With the Giants, who drafted him in the 1999 First-Year Player Draft, Williams went 7-5 in 2003 and 10-7 in 2004. He was just the fourth rookie in franchise history, and the first since 1937, to start a postseason game.
With an 0-2 start and a 6.48 ERA in the opening months of the 2005 season, Williams subsequently fell out of favor in the Bay Area, and the Cubs quickly seized the opportunity to trade for him.
"He shows us the ability to throw strikes any time in the count," said Larry Rothschild, Chicago's pitching coach. "He has a high level of concentration on every pitch, and that's something we like. Because of his experience, he has an excellent chance to be in the rotation. The ball is really in his court."
On paper, the Cubs' staff appears to be one of the better ones in the National League. Yet, with Wood's uncertainty, Prior's history of elbow problems and Maddux's age, Williams is poised to make a serious run as a starter.
"Everyone knows pitching wins," said Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee, coming off a monster season in which he hit 46 home runs with 107 RBIs and a .335 average. "I like our chances here, although starting pitching is hard to replace. Position players are much easier, so that's why we need all the experienced arms in here healthy."
For his part, Williams welcomes the challenge ahead and realizes the Cubs have serious potential for the 2006 season. With the addition of center fielder Juan Pierre at the top of the lineup, and Lee and third baseman Aramis Ramirez (.302 average, 31 home runs and 92 RBIs) sending bulltets around Wrigley Field, the North Siders are in a position to challenge St. Louis and Houston for the National League Central title.
"I would like to pick up here where I left off at the end of last season," said Williams, who went 2-3 after Sept. 1 but fashioned a 2.40 ERA. "I feel I'm still learning, always thinking and always growing. My goal is just to be consistent, and be healthy."