Cubs counting on college coach

Johnson lured from Vanderbilt to tutor top minor league pitching prospects

The Cubs made news last week, signing free agent pitchers Edwin Jackson and Carlos Villanueva.

Along with two other starting pitchers signed in November, Scott Baker and Scott Feldman, these guys will earn $73.5 million over eight seasons. That's quite a commitment but it pales in terms of potential impact alongside a hiring made in late October and a college junior they will add in June.

Derek Johnson, lured away from a highly successful run as Vanderbilt University's pitching coach, will be in charge of developing the Cubs' pitching prospects. That group probably will include Indiana State left-hander Sean Manaea, unless right-handers Mark Appel (Stanford), Ryne Stanek (Arkansas) or Jonathon Crawford (Florida) pass him before the draft.

President Theo Epstein's plan to build a consistent contender from the ground floor up depends more on the success of Johnson and the 2013 first-round than any pitchers currently in the stable, including those who were just added.

Johnson, frequently recognized as one of the top coaches in college baseball, had turned down head coaching jobs because he wanted to continue working directly with players. He will have to spread himself around more as the Cubs' minor-league pitching coordinator but couldn't say no when he was given a chance to join the ongoing Epstein adventure at Wrigley Field.

An under-sized left-hander, Johnson grew up following the Cubs in Central Illinois and was an All-Mid-Continent Conference pitcher at Eastern Illinois. He stayed on as a coach at his alma mater when he wasn't drafted and will be working in pro ball for the first time. While making a name for himself as a pitching coach at Stetson and then Vanderbilt, he never lost the dream he had as a teenager, to celebrate a championship in Chicago.

"That's a big part of it,'' Johnson said. "I grew up near Bloomington. My granddad and I watched WGN every day during the summer. I've had some opportunities with other clubs but it never felt quite right, like it did with the Cubs. It is something close to home for me.''

Johnson developed 2012 Cy Young winner David Price and five other first-round pitchers at Vanderbilt. The Commodores had 32 pitchers drafted overall during Johnson's tenure, and the reality is there were differences in how he handled all of them.

He's a proponent of long-toss programs and says pitchers often "under-throw, under-prepare,'' but says the key to his success has been working to get to know each pitcher and finding what works for them.

"In college it is 15 guys,'' Johnson said. "You take those 15 guys and do the best you can with them. I have a lot more guys to work with now, and I'm sure there will be a bit of difficulty there. There are more channels to go through, working alongside other pitching coaches, but I don't think it will be that different. We'll still do things I thought worked in high school and college, the same kind of steps, progression to make him a better player.''

While the 2013 draft is considered weak overall, its strength is college pitching. There are no bets that look as safe as Price did when the Rays grabbed him with the first pick in 2007 but Manaea is the buzz guy heading into the college season, which begins in February. He's cut from the same mold as Chris Sale but packs 215 to 235 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame and is coming off one of the best summers ever for a pitcher in the Cape Cod League.

"He came out of nowhere,'' said Jason McLeod, the Cubs' vice president who serves as scouting and farm director. "His Cape season was ridiculous — not just the numbers but the fact they came within the context of a massive explosion of offense. You look at his numbers, you realize he dominated that league.''

Manaea throws from a low three-quarters arm angle, like Sale, and has a mid-90s fastball that peaks at 98 and a put-away slider. His fastball command is extremely good, which is why he had an 85-7 ratio of strikeouts to walks in his 512/3 innings for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks, holding top college hitters to a .121 average while compiling a 1.21 earned-run average.

The Astros picks first in June and could take a college pitcher off the board, making the decision somewhat easier for McLeod, Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and special assistant Tim Wilken. Both Appel and Manaea are being advised by agent Scott Boras, and the Astros took Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa first overall last June after they couldn't agree on a pre-draft terms with Appel.

The Cubs could wind up with two of the college power arms as their second pick is 39th overall. They were thrilled when they landed Missouri State's Pierce Johnson with the 43rd pick after a minor elbow injury caused him to slide last spring.

"You never know how a draft will unfold,'' McLeod said. "It would be very nice to be in that position. If something happens with a top guy, you might get two of them. The second pick is interesting too, not just the first one.''

Back to the start: Britt Burns pitched one of the greatest, if most painful, games in White Sox history. He rejoined the organization last week, hired to serve as pitching coach at Double-A Birmingham.

The move came as the result of a coaching shuffle that followed Bobby Thigpen being promoted to replace Juan Nieves, who left his job as the White Sox bullpen coach to become the Red Sox's pitching coach. Burns said he first talked about joining the Sox coaching staff in 2003, at a 20-year reunion of the 1983 American League West champions, but that the organization's unusually high level of stability worked against him.

"I talked with (Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf) about it and on and off and have talked with (Kirk Champion) about it, but they haven't really had any jobs,'' said Burns, who has worked in the Tigers and Astros organizations. "The White Sox have maintained a set staff, especially pitching coaches. That continuity is a big plus for the organization. But this is great timing for me.''

Burns, who got to the big leagues at 19, went 70-60 in his eight seasons, including a 15-win season in 1980. He battled degenerative hip problems throughout his career but found a way to shine in his most important start. He held the Orioles scoreless through nine innings in Game 4 of the 1983 ALCS but suffered the clinching loss on a Tito Landrum home run in the 10th.

"To pitch effectively, as effectively as I did that day, under those circumstances, was one of those tests that lets you know if you're good enough,'' Burns said. "It was a good day. I found out what I could do that day. Obviously I'd have love to have won that game and had LaMarr Hoyt to pitch Game 5, but it's still good to know that I pitched well in that type of an occasion.''

Human ping-pong balls: Does it seem like you have seen the name Sandy Rosario a few times this winter? That's because the 27-year-old right-hander somehow has been involved in five transactions, starting with the Marlins and winding up — so far — with the Giants.

The Red Sox claimed Rosario on waivers from the Marlins and then traded to the A's for pitcher Graham Godfrey. The Red Sox claimed him for a second time when the A's designated him for assignment — meaning they essentially got Godfrey for only a waiver price — and since then he has been claimed from the Red Sox by the Cubs and from the Cubs by the Giants.

If anyone can relate, it's Mickey Storey. After making his big-league debut for the Astros last season, the 26-year-old right-hander has been claimed on waivers three times this winter. He went from the Astros to the Yankees, then from the Yankees back to the Astros and last week from the Astros to the Blue Jays.

Here's hoping that at least they have been sent equipment bags from all of their organizations.

Twitter @ChiTribRogers