Lefty Russell aiming for starting spot

MESA, Ariz. -- James Russell, the Chicago Cubs' only viable left-handed starting pitching candidate in camp, is focused on winning a rotation spot this spring.

Russell, 25, was a starter in the minors until 2009 when he made 25 relief appearances in the minor leagues. Russell spent his rookie season in the Cubs bullpen, appearing in 57 games and holding left-handed hitters to a .238 batting average. His first season was highlighted with nine straight scoreless appearances between July 1 and July 17, spanning 6 1/3 innings.

"I'm just working on fine-tuning my pitches now," Russell said. "I'm working hard on my changeup because I will be using that a lot versus righties. I'm also trying to spot my slider on both sides of the plate and to fine-tune my curveball."

The wide assortment of pitches will be necessary to move past the other five pitchers hoping to make the staff. All five of the other candidates are right-handed.

"That's a big positive for me," Russell said. "All teams want to have a lefty on their starting staff somewhere. I'm going to bust my butt and try to be that one lefty on ours."

Of course the best scenario for Russell is winning the fifth spot outright. But if he makes progress and the Cubs decide to go with a veteran to start the season, he may have to pitch as a starter in the minor leagues.

"If that happens so be it," Russell said. "I'll just go there and beat the hell out of some Triple-A guys as I'm working my way back up to Chicago."

The Cubs bullpen is fortified with left-handers, allowing Russell to attempt to become a starter. Sean Marshall will set up closer Carlos Marmol from the left side, veteran John Grabow will be available in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings and rookie Scott Maine would inherit Russell's role earlier in games. Maine was impressive enough in a late-season call-up that the Cubs feel good about letting Russell become a starter.

"I'm really enjoying my opportunity, and I'm going to bust it, have fun with it and make the best of this opportunity," Russell said.

Russell plans to have his own style as a starter on the mound.

"I like to work fast, and I'll continue to work that way as a starter," Russell said. "As a reliever you have to command your pitches right away. As a starter there is a pace that allows you to find your stuff because you use more pitches."

Cubs catcher Geovany Soto believes Russell has a good shot at converting back to starting.

"He has the confidence to get it done," Soto said of Russell. "He just needs to command both sides of the plate with his pitches. He's going to have to control his changeup. He'll need that pitch to get right-handers out."