MESA, Ariz. -- Esmailin Caridad was in the right place, right time for the Cubs, and may be the right-handed setup pitcher the team needs.

Caridad signed his first pro contract with a Japanese team when he was 16 years old. He didn't get a call up to the Japan big leagues until 2007 when he pitched very briefly for the Hiroshima Carp, appearing in two games.

"I liked Japan," Caridad said Friday. "I like it here better."

A free agent after that season, he was pitching back home in the Dominican Republic when Cubs player development director Oneri Fleita saw him. Cubs general manager Jim Hendry just happened to be coming to the Dominican for a few days and Fleita, who had gotten a tip about the youngster from a friend of long-time scout Jose Serra, asked Caridad if he would throw for him.

"Jim watched him throw a couple innings and said, 'Why haven't we signed him already?'" Fleita said.

On Dec. 19, 2007, Caridad signed with the Cubs and was invited to the Cubs' spring camp.

"Everything in life is about timing and in Esmailin Caridad's case and the Chicago Cubs' case, the timing couldn't have been any better," Fleita said.

Now, Caridad is 26 and appears to have a spot in the Cubs bullpen.

"He's on the team," Lou Piniella said Thursday. "He's almost got to pitch himself off it. I don't think he will. I like this young man. He competes, he's got a good arm, he can pitch a lot. He handled himself here quite well the last two months of the season."

In 2008, Caridad was with Class A Daytona, then moved up to Double-A Tennessee. Last year, he made 25 starts for Triple-A Iowa and went 5-10 with a 4.17 ERA, striking out 114 over 131 2/3 innings.

Late last season, Caridad was called up to the big leagues and appeared in 14 games. He compiled an impressive 1.40 ERA over 19 1/3 innings. Could he be the right-handed setup pitcher the Cubs need?

"He's got the stuff for it," Piniella said. "Does he have the experience, savvy? We'll have to wait and see. He does have the stuff. One good thing about this young man is he's not scared."

Caridad saw Piniella's comments.

"I'm ready for the season," the pitcher said Friday. "When I started this spring, I put my energy and concentration into the game."

At 26, Caridad is older than most of the other bullpen candidates.

"He's got a young arm," said Mike Mason, who was the Iowa pitching coach. "He makes a lot of youthful mistakes. He overthrows. Last year, when he came up to the big leagues, it was kind of his niche -- short doses of high energy pitching."

Which would seem to be the description of a setup pitcher.

"If it was up to me, he's one of those guys who will be a seventh- or eighth-inning guy who's going to come in and try to blow balls by batters," Mason said. "We've been working on his breaking ball, which is improving, and if he ever gets that, you never know what he's going to be."

Anyone who watched Caridad at Iowa might wonder where the oomph in his fastball came from. The right-hander's fastball averaged in the upper 80s at Iowa. But last season, the radar gun also flashed 95, 96 mph.

"It's confidence," Mason said. "When he first signed, he was a little bit apprehensive about how he went after it. He wanted to make sure he threw strikes first. Now, he's pretty much got that down and he's throwing strikes and now he's just letting it go and he's able to maintain his strike zone command and letting it go, and that's why the 95, 96 is coming out. It's trust. He's trusting his stuff a little more."

The reason he held back most likely was because of Caridad's training with the Japanese team. The emphasis for the Japan pitchers is mechanics and the need to throw strikes.

"Here [in the Major Leagues], if you don't throw hard, you have no chance," Caridad said.

One would think young pitchers would try to throw as hard as they can to impress Major League teams.

"[Caridad's] first Spring Training was two years ago and people forget that because he was all over the place," Mason said. "Understanding baseball, you're not going to get anybody out throwing balls, you need to throw strikes. He kind of backed off to get it in the zone.

"Even as a starter for me last year in Triple-A, he'd have times when it would average 89, 88 [mph], and all of a sudden, he'd throw 96 by a guy," Mason said. "You'd say, 'Why don't you do that all the time?' and he'd say, 'I've got to throw strikes.'"

It took some convincing on Mason's part. He enlisted infielder Andres Blanco as interpreter. One of the messages Blanco also gave Caridad is to focus on the game. While in Japan, Caridad met a Romanian woman and they communicated with signs -- neither spoke the other's language. A relationship developed and they have a 2-year-old child. Caridad would like to bring them to the U.S. He also takes care of his mother and family in the Dominican, sending money back home every week.

Caridad's nickname is Smiley. There's no smiling when he's pitching, especially by hitters when his two-seamer zips by.

"On the mound, no," Caridad said. "If I do a good job, then I smile."

Does he have the experience Piniella is looking for?

"I've got experience," Caridad said. "I want to make it, like last year."