Lahey trying to pitch his way on to Cubs
Rule 5 pick and former catcher finds easier road on mound
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Tim Lahey's size isn't the reason he's no longer a catcher.
"In a way, I did outgrow the position," said the 6-foot 6-inch, 250-pound right-handed pitcher. "What it came down to is I wasn't hitting well enough."
After his first Spring Training in 2004, when he hit .202 for Elizabethtown, the Twins' Rookie League team, Lahey met with the coaching staff to talk about what he was doing well and what he needed to work on. They all recognized he was a big guy, and considered putting Lahey on the mound. Other catchers have switched to pitching, such as Troy Percival. Within a week after the conversation, Lahey was throwing to a catcher, and not behind the plate.
"After 10 pitches, they said, 'Turn in your gear. This is a better option,'" Lahey said.
He's never looked back.
"It took off pretty fast," said Lahey, who was assigned to high Class A ball the next year, and last year, pitched in Double-A and Triple-A.
The Cubs acquired Lahey in the Rule 5 Draft last December. Technically, they got him for cash considerations from the Tampa Bay Rays, who had picked the right-handed pitcher first overall in the Draft. The move was a reverse of what the Cubs did one year ago during the Draft, when they selected outfielder Josh Hamilton with the first pick, then traded the outfielder to the Cincinnati Reds for cash considerations.
Lahey spent most of last season with the Twins' Double-A New Britain team, posting an 8-4 record with 13 saves and a 3.45 ERA in 50 games. He struck out 56 and walked 33 over 78 1/3 innings. Lahey appeared in two games for Triple-A Rochester, totaling three innings.
The selection rules of the Draft provide that a player taken must remain on the drafting team's active Major League roster during the following season or be offered back to the original club at half the original price. Players taken during the Major League phase of the Draft cost $50,000 each.
However, Lahey must clear waivers before he is offered back to the Twins. Lahey wasn't even sure of all the rules.
"It is unique," he said of how he became one of the Cubs. "I've become familiar with the Rule 5 Draft since I've been affiliated in pro ball. It's a great opportunity. The way the Cubs went about it, it feels good that they made an effort to get me."
He's not the only catcher who has converted to a pitcher on the Cubs roster. Carlos Marmol also did so, and he's had pretty good success.
"As a catcher, you might come to a crossroads sooner, just in terms of hitting," Lahey said. "If I hit .350, I'd still be catching. I don't know what level I'd be at or if I'd still be in baseball. [Switching to pitcher] was a combination of my size, arm strength and lack of performance as a hitter."
Lahey's college coach had told the right-hander to keep his options open.
"My college coach [Scott Bradley] said, 'Before they release you as a catcher, make sure they get you on the mound,'" Lahey said. "He always taught me to be as athletic as I could be."
It's worked for others.
"It looks like they put [Marmol] in the right spot," Cubs player development director Oneri Fleita said. "Trevor Hoffman was a shortstop. He didn't start pitching until he was 21, 22 [years old]. I was in Cedar Rapids [Iowa] the night Dave Miley had him come on in relief to finish up an inning, and they said, 'Whoa, you can pitch?' He could really throw but never hit.
"That's a guy who's a perfect example of a guy who gets converted and has a great career. At the end of the day, it's all about getting to the Major Leagues. Obviously, somebody saw something in Tim Lahey to have the vision to put him on the mound. What a great opportunity for him. Now he's on a Major League roster with the chance to make a Major League club."
Lahey caught the Cubs' attention because he was a sinkerball pitcher with a 3-to-1 ground-ball ratio. That's perfect for Wrigley Field. In his first outing against the Angels, he faced three batters and got all three to ground out. If he wins a job, it would be as a reliever.
"We'll see what happens," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "One thing in his favor, we'll probably end up carrying 12 pitchers. That gives us an extra pitcher to look at."
Lahey also is a little different from others in camp in that he is a Princeton graduate who majored in politics. Want to discuss the presidential campaign or how to deal with runners when the bases are loaded and there's none out? He can do both.
San Diego's Chris Young also attended Princeton. So did Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro. So did Yankees pitcher Ross Ohlendorf, who pitched in the playoffs last season. He and Lahey were teammates on the Tigers baseball team.
"There are more than people would think," Lahey said. "It's certainly not known for being a baseball factory."
Bradley, Lahey's coach, played in the big leagues from 1984-92, catching for the Yankees, White Sox and Mariners. He was one of the reasons Lahey picked the Ivy League school.
"I went there with the idea that it was the best combination of the two I could find," he said. "It's one of the best schools in the country and also a very good baseball program that I was excited about playing for. Is it USC or Cal State-Fullerton or an SEC school? No, it's not. We went to the NCAA Regionals three out of four years because we won the conference. It was a good program."
Now, Lahey is campaigning for a spot on the Cubs big league roster.
"Anybody who's fighting for a job on this team, it's a tryout every day," he said. "With the Cubs, with their lack of familiarity with me, I'm trying to do something every day.
"For the guys who are established, it's about fine tuning and getting ready for the season. For me, it's a different deal. I'm trying to convince them I'm a valuable piece to hold on to."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.