Cubs hope early work leads to big returns

Cubs hope early work leads to big returns

Cubs hope early work leads to big returns
MESA, Ariz. -- Some of the Cubs got a head start on workouts a couple of weeks ago, when Ryan Dempster led more than 20 players on a sunrise run up Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale.

"A lot of those guys were Minor League guys, too. But a lot of those guys were whoever showed up, and that says a lot," Dempster said.

If the Cubs can get credit for effort, they could be ahead of other teams. Sunday was the first day for pitchers and catchers to report to Fitch Park, but nearly all of the players on the roster have been in Arizona to get a head start on the season. The first workout for pitchers and catchers will be Monday at Fitch Park.

Spring Training
Previews
Pitchers & Catchers

Spring Training links
Spring Training tickets
Travel packages
Spring Training schedule

"For as long a grind as the season is, these guys are anxious," Cubs manager Mike Quade said. "They want to start the first Spring Training game in a couple days -- and that's good, because I feel the same way."

This is time for the new Cubs, like Matt Garza, to get acquainted with the old -- such as Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Sean Marshall. Kerry Wood is back after a two-year stint in the American League. Youngsters Andrew Cashner and James Russell will get started on their bids to make the rotation. New pitching coach Mark Riggins can finally see live arms, not videos. He's got to sort through at least 10 candidates for the rotation -- and Russell is the only lefty on the list.

The only other unfinished business heading into Cubs camp is Carlos Marmol's contract. The closer has filed for arbitration, seeking $5.65 million, and the Cubs countered at $4.1 million. A hearing date was set for Tuesday, but the two sides were expected to announce a long-term deal on Monday.

How eager was Blake DeWitt to get out of the snow in Missouri? He took a cab from Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix directly to Fitch Park on Sunday.

"I couldn't wait to get out here," said DeWitt after unloading his suitcase, gear and bat bag. "I think everybody's looking forward to this season. I think everybody's excited about how we finished the season last year and the moves we made this past offseason. There's a lot of potential here."

DeWitt has been mentioned as one of the leadoff options.

"To be honest, I haven't even thought about it," the infielder said. "If they ask me to do it, I'll be more than happy to do it. It's a big responsibility. But it's also a big responsibility hitting eighth. You've got to play hard, and do whatever you can do to help the team win."

The lineup will be dissected when Cactus League play begins on Feb. 27 against the Athletics. Right now, it's just pitchers and catchers -- and any position players who want some extra work in the new batting cages with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo before the first full-squad workout on Feb. 19.

Quade guided the Cubs to a 24-13 record after he took over for Lou Piniella. But when "Q" replaced Lou on Aug. 23, the Cubs were 21 1/2 games back. Now, Quade starts fresh, yet has had six weeks to make the transition easier.

"This is a great time of year," Quade said. "You're optimistic as a son of a gun. Knock on wood, everybody's healthy. I've been through a million Spring Trainings -- 30 of them, anyway. It's kind of the same [as when I took over in August]. As we build into games and decisions get made, it will take on a little different feel. I couldn't wait to get here. It's probably the first time I've relaxed in two or three months."

Quade had a busy offseason. He frequented his favorite fishing spots in Florida, but the cold weather didn't cooperate. He was also busy rehabbing a home there. Then, there was the week in Chicago for the Cubs Caravan and Convention, and then a trip to Italy to take part in a baseball clinic.

How different was this after all those years outside the limelight? Very different. His neighbor in Florida brought him some chicken soup when he got home, but also had a dozen baseballs for him to sign.

"I understand the magnitude [of the job], believe me," Quade said. "It doesn't do Mike Quade any good to get wrapped up in the magnitude. I'm more a grind in -- day in, day out, guy. If we're going to be successful here with me in charge, I have to stay in charge of myself, and do what I need to do."

A lot of players in camp will be trying to get noticed, including right-hander Jeff Samardzija -- who is out of options and another rotation candidate. He'll be one of 15 pitchers throwing on the side Monday.

"I'm not too worried about that," Samardzija said of his contract status. "I came into camp the last couple years with a big, grand plan of what I wanted to do. I've gone to camp and done everything I can preparation-wise -- and obviously a lot of guys will get a good look, and it should be a good camp."

In January at the Cubs Convention, Samardzija was ready to go.

"I've been ready for a long time," he said. "That hasn't changed. I've cherished this last month. I've really laid low here in Arizona, and took my time and didn't go anywhere -- and stayed here and worried about one thing. It's been nice to do that. To be down here and getting ready for camp is a different feeling."

Outfielder Reed Johnson, a non-roster invitee, was one of the position players who reported on Sunday. One reason for showing up early is that he has a 1-year-old son and a new puppy, and wanted to get settled in Arizona quickly. He was eager to return to Chicago, after playing for the Cubs in 2008 and '09.

"It's great to be in a spot where you're familiar," Johnson said. "It's tough going to an organization in Spring Training having to start all over again. I feel like there's still a lot of pieces in place here. [Wood's] back here, too. We're all working our way back."

When Johnson realized he would likely have to sign a Minor League deal, he tried to get back to the Cubs. Fans showed him very early on how knowledgeable they are about the game. One of his early at-bats at Wrigley Field, he recalls grounding out to second and driving in a run, and the whole stadium stood up and cheered.

"I think the fans in Chicago appreciate the little things," Johnson said.

So does Quade. He'll be hands-on as far as fundamental drills go, and has the final say on the rotation, but will rely heavily on his coaches.

"I'd like to think at the end of the day, contract notwithstanding, it's my call," Quade said, playfully poking general manager Jim Hendry. "I know what I know, and I know what I don't know, so [Riggins] will be huge in all of this, along with [bullpen coach Lester Strode] and some other people."

After a fifth-place finish in 2010, the Cubs are not the preseason favorites to win the National League Central. Hendry said on Sunday that he fully expects the team to be in contention this year.

"I think we have a great core group of guys," Samardzija said. "It's a fun team. I don't think you can project this team's season just by who's sitting in the locker room right now. You have to see how this team starts and how we roll. I think the best thing we have here is how we are a team. Everyone gets along very well, everyone enjoys each other and has fun."

When Dempster and the others ran up Camelback, it was a brisk 28 degrees, which is cold by Chicago standards -- and frigid in Arizona. Nature cooperated on Sunday, with clear skies and temperatures in the upper 70s.

"This is perfect," DeWitt 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.