Russell Adds to Draft Crop

James Russell (Inside Texas Photo/Will Gallagher)

After drafting an influx of college hitters in the first 10 rounds of the 2007 draft back in June, the Cubs were hoping to sign an assortment of pitchers selected in the middle rounds to even out their crop.

The recent signings of Ryan Acosta and James Russell could do just that.

The Cubs came to terms with Acosta, an 18-year-old right-hander selected with their 12th-round pick from Clearwater Catholic (Fla.) High School, on Aug. 4. The following week, Chicago closed the deal with Russell, a left-hander from the University of Texas that was selected in the 14th round.

"With Acosta and Russell, I think we now give a little balance to what was a very offensive (oriented) draft," said Cubs Scouting Director Tim Wilken.

"With these two guys, we feel like we have added guys with the stuff and ability to be starting pitchers. That was kind of sacrificed early, but it just happened to be very offensive (oriented) early," Wilken added.

The 21-year-old Russell was 8-4 with a 3.86 ERA in 21 appearances with the Longhorns this past season, making 19 starts and finishing tied with the team lead in strikeouts with 91. He walked 28 and posted a .256 average against while leading his team with 109 2/3 innings pitched.

The son of former major league pitcher Jeff Russell, James Russell transferred to Austin following two years with Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas.

"He's got good delivery, good arm action, pretty good arm speed, and has good body control and balance to his delivery," Wilken said of Russell.

Russell features a fastball in the 88-92 mph range along with a changeup and "traditional" curveball in his repertoire, Wilken said.

The curveball is the pitch the Cubs feel Russell needs to improve the most and in the summer of 2006, Russell teamed with veteran pitching guru Tom House to get right to work on that improvement.

House is the former major league pitching coach of the Texas Rangers, who was credited for playing a hand in Nolan Ryan's Hall of Fame career.

Cubs Regional Scout Steve Riha was on hand for Russell's stint in the Texas Collegiate League in 2006 and relayed to Wilken that Russell's curveball had improved a fair amount and was getting more consistent.

"That was really soothing," Wilken said. "(The pitch) is 73 to 77 (mph), so there's some arm speed to it. It's just a matter of getting the feel and the grip and where he needs to be with his release point."


James Russell led his team in innings pitched this past season and was tied for the team lead with 91 strikeouts. (Inside Texas Photo/Will Gallagher)

The 2007 season was also Russell's first in a Division I conference.

"I think that competition definitely helps when you know you can perform against it. He was pretty successful ... 8-4. He did have a pretty good year. The only rap on him was that the curveball wasn't quite there," he said.

"But I saw enough spin in it to believe that it could be an average pitch if he learned how to command it a little better. Once you can feel that pitch a little more, there may come more consistency. I'm anxious to see as he makes his trek up the Cubs' ladder if he can pick that pitch up a little better."

Because left-handers Casey Lambert and Chris Siegfried (the club's highest drafted pitchers in the sixth and 11th rounds, respectively) both project as relievers, the Cubs plan to continue developing Russell as a starter.

"I definitely think he can be a starter," said Wilken. "Like I said, I like the athleticism, the consistency, the body control and the delivery. With Siegfried and Lambert kind of looking like they're going to be relievers, it was good to add Acosta and Russell to the list with their chances to be starting pitchers."

Russell was one of two players drafted by the Cubs from Texas this year, as catcher Preston Clark was scooped up in the 33rd round of the draft.

While Chicago was able to sign Russell, the chances of adding his college teammate before Wednesday's mandatory signing deadline for all non-college seniors appear less likely to happen, Wilken said.

"It doesn't seem like we're going to have the ability to sign him," Wilken said. "We still have good interest in him and maybe next year we'll take another shot at him."

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