Thursday March 17th, 2011

MESA, Ariz. -- Three observations after spending time in Cubs camp:

The Cubs had the majors' third-highest payroll in 2010 ($147 million) and its 23rd-best win total (75). Much of that budget wrapped up in six players with eight-figure salaries, of whom all but Ryan Dempster had particularly disappointing seasons. Starter Carlos Zambrano struggled early and was sent to the bullpen for a couple months; third baseman Aramis Ramirez didn't eclipse a .200 average until July and finished the season with a sub-.300 on-base percentage; Kosuke Fukudome and Alfonso Soriano both had essentially league-average seasons for corner outfielders, hardly the production sought from players making a combined $31 million; and starter Carlos Silva, for whom $3.5 million of his $11.5 million salary was being paid by the Mariners, made only 21 starts.

Chicago's general manager, Jim Hendry, said he believes that the performances of those stars will self-correct. "I think that's going to take care of itself very well," Hendry said.

Hendry points to Zambrano's reinvention in the rotation when he went 8-0 with a 1.41 ERA in 11 late-season starts. He said he believes Soriano, who has hit 20 and 24 home runs the past two seasons, is still capable of hitting 30 or 35 homers. And Hendry said Ramirez had some health issues last year and is more than doubling the number of at bats this spring so that he would not start as slowly.

"We need him to have a real good year," Hendry said of Ramirez. "He's a big key to the offense. He's capable of being our best guy."

Free-agent first baseman Carlos Peña, who played the last four years with Tampa Bay, is the latest member of the eight-figure club after he signed a one-year, $10-million contract. Peña averaged 36 homers in his tenure with the Rays but saw his batting average and home run total fall from .282 and 46 in 2007 to .196 and 28 last year. But Peña, who broke into the majors with the Rangers in 2001, has reunited with his former Texas hitting coach, Rudy Jaramillo, who now fills that role for the Cubs. The two worked together for a week in Texas in January and hope that Peña, like his new teammates, might be getting back on track.

Hendry outlined three goals for the team this offseason -- a good-fielding, lefthanded-hitting first baseman, an impact starting pitcher and a righthanded reliever -- and he made an X in each box of the checklist after signing free agents Peña and Kerry Wood and trading for Matt Garza.

"With what we had to work with," Hendry said, "we thought we hit three bullseyes that all fit into our payroll."

Wood, who took a club-friendly $1.5-million deal to rejoin the Cubs, fills a need in front of closer Carlos Marmol. Indeed, it was Chicago's dearth of righthanded reliever last year that helped precipitate Zambrano's move to the bullpen in the first place. After being traded from the Indians to the Yankees, Wood allowed just two earned runs in 26 innings for a 0.69 ERA and 31 strikeouts.

Garza, meanwhile, won a career-high 15 games with a 3.91 ERA in 204 2/3 innings for Tampa Bay last year, even hurling a no-hitter in July. He'll fit in nicely in Ted Lilly's old spot as the No. 3 starter behind Dempster and Zambrano.

"He developed a winning-type attitude over in Tampa," Dempster said of Garza. "Anytime you have a guy who's bringing that is a plus. He's extremely competitive, which is awesome."

After last year's manager, Lou Piniella, who had announced plans to retire at season's end, abruptly left midseason in order to care for his mother, third base coach Mike Quade was appointed interim manager, but few thought he had a chance to become the permanent skipper this offseason.

But a funny thing happened on the Cubs' way to hiring a big name like Ryne Sandberg or prying away Joe Girardi from the Yankees -- Quade was really good at his job. Not only did the club, which was 51-74 (.408) under Piniella, go 24-13 (.649) under Quade, but Hendry also said he was particularly impressed at how Quade was successful.

Most young or interim managers, Hendry said, will treat each game like the playoffs because they know it's an audition. But Quade successfully balanced development of the young players -- pitching prospect Andrew Cashner in high-leverage relief situations, for instance, rather than always using proven Sean Marshall, who was on his way to 80 appearances -- with improving the team's record. That went a long way toward Quade earning the full-time gig.

"We were creeping up on appearances with guys on a team that wasn't doing well," Hendry said. "He never compromised their health to win that game. I thought he did a masterful job with that without selling his soul to win every single game."

Fourth, fifth starters

The candidates are many -- Silva, Cashner, Randy Wells, Casey Coleman, Braden Looper, Todd Wellemeyer and James Russell -- and a decision is not imminent.

"I'm no closer to nailing stuff down," Quade said Monday. "Until I have to make a decision, we're going to let this thing play out."

One would imagine that Wells has the inside track on one spot. Though his record was 8-14 last season, he had a 4.26 ERA in 194 1/3 innings and only allowed his first two earned runs in 14 innings this spring on Tuesday in a split-squad game in Mesa. In the other game, in Phoenix, Cashner allowed one run over 3 1/3 innings and furthered his own case for the rotation. Those two would seem to be the frontrunners. Cashner has come to close to securing a spot on the major league roster in some capacity, and with a few more good outings he could be close to grabbing the last spot in the rotation.

Carlos Peña

No matter what he hits, Peña is likely to make a strong contribution in the field. Longtime Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee was good with the glove too, but even with him, the team's infield defense was suspect last year. Rookie shortstop Starlin Castro made 27 errors and Ramirez made 16. Overall, Chicago made 126 errors in 2010, one behind co-NL leaders Pittsburgh and Washington.

Peña, a 2009 Gold Glove winner, should help cut that total down. One drill he's fond of is to take what he calls "extreme groundballs." He kneels on a towel, gripping the miniature mitt of a middle infielder while a coach standing about 60-feet away slams fungoes at him. Peña explains the premise as, "I dare you to hit it in my face." The small glove forces him to catch the ball in the webbing each time, and such proficiency, of course, also helps in scooping throws out of the dirt.

Quade recounted for the media his experience in Las Vegas for a pair of exhibition baseball games but also his attendance at the Miguel Cotto-Ricardo Mayorga fight. One of the undercard bouts featured former Notre Dame and current Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski, who won in a first-round knockout. Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who was a wide receiver for the Fighting Irish and is one of Zbikowski's best friends, attended the fight and even flew in his father for the occasion. . . . Quade noted Soto's skill on the basepaths despite his poor speed thusly: "He can't run out of sight in a month, but he's one of our better baserunners." . . . Dempster said that 27 of the Cubs training in Mesa before camp took a field trip one day to hike Camelback Mountain.

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