Notes: Blanco 'invaluable' to Soto
Marquis embraces competition; Zambrano talks hitting
MESA, Ariz. -- Geovany Soto will be the Cubs' No. 1 catcher, but what may help the rookie the most is having Henry Blanco around to help tutor him.
Blanco was limited to 22 games last season because of a cervical herniated disk, which could've ended his career.
"What the doctor told me was that it was in the worst spot, and if I had surgery, I was done," Blanco said Friday. "Thank God, everything is fine now and I can play."
He spent the winter playing for Leones in the Venezuelan Winter League, and hit .243 in 47 games.
"It was a big test for me," Blanco said. "I had to see if I could still perform. I'm happy with what I did, and it made me stronger, too, to show them I can come play."
Blanco, 36, admitted he was nervous the first time he started playing this winter.
"I didn't know how much I could do and if I could handle plays at the plate -- I was worried the first couple days," Blanco said. "I couldn't be afraid any more. I had to see how much I could give and how much I could do. Thank God, I'm 100 percent again."
"[Blanco] will be invaluable helping Soto familiarize himself with the pitchers and the opposition," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "Our catching is in good hands. We have a few kids who could be in Triple-A waiting if we need them. Soto will be our No. 1 guy. He showed in September he can handle it, and at the same time he deserves it after the year he had in Triple-A."
Blanco is rooting for Soto, who is coming off an MVP season in the Pacific Coast League.
"He's the man," Blanco said of the rookie. "He's going to be good, and everyone is rooting for him to have a good year. We want him to help us go to the playoffs and maybe the World Series."
Arms race: Jason Marquis arrived at Cubs camp well aware there is more competition for a spot in the rotation. The Cubs have seven pitchers for five spots.
"I'm competing against myself, and every time I touch the baseball, I'm working on things to get me better," Marquis said. "My ability will speak for itself the way it has in the past."
The right-hander, now in the second year of his three-year deal with the Cubs, is coming off a 12-9 season in which he experienced second-half problems for the second consecutive season. Marquis was 6-5 with a 3.67 ERA in the first half, compared to 6-4 with a 5.73 ERA in the second. He did not pitch in the National League Division Series.
"Obviously as a competitor, you want to pitch," Marquis said. "I felt I could help the team and get us to where we wanted to be. That's not my decision, and you move forward to get better."
For the most part, last season was an improvement, he said. There's still work to be done.
"Just being more consistent, down in the zone, and not letting games get away from me," he said. "When things aren't going my way, I still have to bear down and still understand there's a game going on, and I still have to make pitches. There are going to be days like that. There are still things I have to focus on."
And what if he doesn't make the final cut?
"We'll cross that road when we get there if that's the case," Marquis said. "I'm not thinking that way right now. Obviously, I signed here for a reason. I enjoy the team, I enjoy the city, and the team's going in the right direction. I should be a part of that."
Hitting machine: Carlos Zambrano tied a club record by hitting six home runs in 2006 but hit two in 2007, which is still a lot for a pitcher. It was tougher at the plate last season.
"You have to give credit to the pitchers," Zambrano said. "They know I can hit a little bit, and they use their best pitches. My job is to go out there and get the hitters out, not be a hitter. Anything I can do is a plus. I feel good when I do something with a bat, but that's not really my job."
He saw more breaking pitches, more "nasty" pitches last year.
"I don't know how the hitters do it," Zambrano said. "It's tough -- you have to give credit to our guys. When they hit a home run, it's not that easy. When you're in [batting practice], they'll throw right there to you. Hitting is a hard thing to do."
Harder than pitching?
"Yes," he said.
Extra bases: Friday's rain and cold forced the Cubs pitchers to do their throwing in the batting cages, and limited the on-field activity. ... Jon Lieber has his old No. 32 back, although it cost him a watch. Daryle Ward originally had No. 32 but now will wear No. 33 after a friendly exchange. "He's a veteran guy, and he's got more time in the league than I do," Ward said. "We made a nice deal for it. I've waited for a long time to get [No.] 32, but you have to take care of your pitchers." ... Kevin Hart is now wearing No. 22, which Mark Prior wore. "I saw Hart had [No.] 22 on today, and it was a little weird seeing somebody else wear it," pitcher Kerry Wood said. ... This year marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Caray. On Feb. 21, Harry Caray's restaurant in Chicago as well as places around the country will raise a glass to toast Harry. Cubs fans in the Phoenix area can join in the celebration at Sluggo's Sports Grill in Mesa. Former Cubs Lee Smith and Fergie Jenkins are scheduled to sign autographs as well at Sluggo's.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.