Cubs like pitching depth as spring arrives
Optimism abounds as club looks to make best use of assets
MESA, Ariz. -- After studying video, looking at stats and waiting out winter, it's time for the Cubs to see what they've got live and in person.
"This is what we're all here for, is to play the game on the field," said Theo Epstein, Cubs president of baseball operations. "Sometimes the winter can stretch on and you forget what you're doing for a living, and you feel like an accountant or something. We're real happy to hear the crack of the bat and get together under the same roof and get this thing started."
Pitchers and catchers reported Saturday at Fitch Park, with the first workout scheduled for Sunday. The forecast calls for postcard perfect conditions with sunshine and temperatures in the low 70s.
"We have all the parts," manager Dale Sveum said at last month's Cubs Convention. "They just have to get it done in the big leagues. We have plenty of guys who can have productive years."
There's optimism. Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster appear to be the only starters set in the rotation heading into 2012, with the new guys -- Paul Maholm, Chris Volstad and Travis Wood -- competing for the other spots.
One thing that Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer want to avoid this season is being shorthanded. That hurt last year, when both Andrew Cashner and Randy Wells were sidelined after their first games. The subs, which included Doug Davis, Ramon Ortiz and Rodrigo Lopez, combined to go 11-29.
Now, the Cubs feel that they have better inventory this spring, and the list includes Wells, Lopez, Casey Coleman, Andy Sonnanstine, Jeff Samardzija, Jay Jackson and Trey McNutt.
On Saturday, Sveum said that only three of the starters were set, and he didn't name names. Competition is good.
"From top to bottom, we've got solid guys," outfielder Reed Johnson said. "I feel that in 2008, every time we ran out a starter, we had a chance to win that game. I feel when you look at the starting staff we have now, you feel you have a chance to win that night. I think that's key mentally for this team as well."
Wells, limited to 23 starts in 2011 because of a strained right forearm, finds himself battling once again to make the Opening Day rotation.
"It was competitive last year in Spring Training, although not quite to this extent," he said. "At the same time, it was fun to go in there and earn your keep. Things didn't work out for me like I wanted them to last year. I felt good in Spring Training and felt good in camp, but I got hurt and had to overcome adversity. I think I pitched good enough in the second half to at least put my name in the mix for competition."
Wells did make a good impression, going 4-0 in August with a 3.32 ERA in six starts.
"Obviously, I want to start," he said. "I don't think it would be a tough transition [to pitch in relief]. I've done both in the Minor Leagues; I've been a swing man. I definitely want to be a starter, but I'll do whatever."
That's for new pitching coach Chris Bosio to determine. The former Brewers and Mariners pitcher takes over the coaching duties with a slightly different perspective as a former advance scout. He spent the offseason looking at video and talking to players. Don't expect major changes on the first day.
"You've got to let these guys be who they are and then try to help them," Bosio said.
Garza (10-10, 3.32 ERA) and Dempster (10-14, 4.80 ERA) may just need a little tinkering. The Cubs are hoping that Maholm (6-14, 3.66 ERA), Volstad (5-13, 4.89 ERA) and Wood (6-6, 4.84 ERA) prosper on their new teams.
"We got a lot of guys who can throw it," Cubs outfielder Marlon Byrd said on Saturday. "With [Travis] Wood and Volstad, those guys are guys you've faced and you've seen the talent they have; you've seen what they can do. You hope the change of scenery really helps them big time. At the same time, we have competition. We have a lot of guys here -- Andy Sonnanstine, Rodrigo Lopez -- to push guys. It'll be fun and nice to watch those guys compete and develop at the same time."
Bosio's other project is to help closer Carlos Marmol be more consistent. He was 34-for-44 in save situations, posting a 4.01 ERA last season. The rest of the bullpen should be solid, although the Cubs do need to find a replacement for lefty setup reliever Sean Marshall, who was traded to the Reds.
Several players, including Garza and Maholm, have been in Mesa, Ariz., prior to Saturday's report date to get out of the cold weather back home and loosen up.
"I've been coming down for the last three weeks, and [the number of players] just starts growing each day," Sveum said. "Somebody else shows up each day. Even the young kids out here, it's amazing. I've never been out here where so many guys are this early. You definitely have a lot of guys chomping at the bit, that's for sure."
The club gets started on the field on Sunday. Last year, the Cubs ranked 14th in the National League in ERA (4.33), and the rotation could easily have three new faces.
"I think we have a better staff than everybody thinks," said catcher Geovany Soto, another early-bird arrival. "I think we'll do a better job than a lot of people expect."
Saturday was a day to unpack gear and hold one more pre-workout staff meeting for the Cubs coaches. There was plenty of excitement. Johnson drove his family, including 2-year-old son Tyce, from Las Vegas on Friday.
"We kept bribing him [on the drive], saying, 'We're going to Spring Training, it's baseball season, it's baseball season,'" Johnson said of the message that he gave his son to keep him quiet during the five-hour drive. "I'm definitely excited. I'll keep doing this until they rip the uniform off me, that's for sure."
Johnson, a free-agent outfielder, wanted to come back to Chicago after hearing about Sveum, who has promised he won't tolerate any lackadaisical play.
"I think that's a big reason why I came back as well," Johnson said. "You see Dale and the way he approaches things, and you can tell he means that. A lot of coaches and a lot of staff members can say that, but you can tell it's not genuine or they're not going to follow through. [Sveum] doesn't care if you're making $15 million or $450,000. You're going to go out there and play the game hard, and if not, you're not going to play. For players like me, that's really refreshing because a lot of times, especially throughout the league and throughout my experiences, that hasn't been true. If you come in with that attitude, you're going to be in for a rude awakening with this staff."
The Cubs head into the season as underdogs in the NL Central, and that's OK with Byrd.
"Everyone's counting us out, so I'm sure they'll have us down with the Astros, Pirates, whoever," Byrd said on Saturday. "That's fine with us."
He pointed out that the Cardinals were 10 1/2 games out of first place and ended up winning a World Series.
Byrd has been in Mesa, Ariz., for a few weeks. Has he had a chance to lobby with Sveum for his preferred spot in the lineup? Not yet, he said. Byrd and Sveum have talked about hitting, situational baseball and playing the game right. So where does he want to hit?
"Put me in the lineup, that's it," Byrd said. "I'm going to dictate where I am by the way I'm hitting. I started in the three hole [last year] and ended up in the six, seven hole. I showed I wasn't hitting. If I'm hitting, they'll put me where I need to be."
This is the last year of Byrd's contract with the Cubs, and he'd like to stay.
"I don't want to go anywhere," the center fielder said. "I came to Chicago for a reason, and that's to help [the Cubs] win, and I haven't done that yet. I have a lot to accomplish here. I just have to go out there and do what I can to help this team win. If they want me here, I'm definitely going to be here."
So far the tone has been good in camp, and Spring Training hasn't even officially started yet.
"There's a different feeling around here, and it's a good feeling," Byrd said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.