Chicago Sun-Times
with sports reporters Chris De Luca and Gordon Wittenmyer

February 2011 Archives

Cubs notes: Shift on Pena, and Perez on YouTube

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Facing a defensive shift is nothing new to Cubs pull hitter Carlos Pena. But the former Tampa Bay Ray can't remember facing one in spring training before.

So imagine his surprise when he drove a ball up the middle in the first inning Monday against a Milwaukee Brewers split-squad team and prepared to round first just as the throw arrived from the repositioned shortstop.

``I went, `Oh, where'd that guy come from?' '' said Pena, who lost two potential base hits to Milwaukee AA manager Mike Guerrero's shift.

Obviously, expect more of the same all summer at Wrigley Field. And more of the same approach from Pena - who, despite hopes of a big rebound from that .196 average last year, doesn't plan to pay any attention to the shifts (which might be why he didn't seem to be aware Monday before getting thrown out).

``The most harm is done when you allow things like that to all of a sudden influence your approach,'' said Pena, who's willing only to occasionally lay a bunt toward third to beat a shift if the situation calls for it - but doesn't plan to lose any homers to right or doubles off the wall by altering his approach.

``The moment that I let that shift get in my mind, they've won,'' he says.


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The Cubs escaped a close call with speedy outfielder Fernando Perez and his surgically repaired left wrist when Perez was slow to get up after bending the wrist on a diving catch in the right-center gap.

``It scares you more than anything,'' said Perez, who dislocated the wrist on a similar play in a spring training game two years ago. ``I've become a bad tumbler since I had the surgery. I'm fine. I just took a tumble that I didn't really enjoy very much, but I'll be fine.''

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Speaking of Perez, check out this video he helped some buddies put together when he was with Tampa Bay:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQjt0Xzb5F8

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Kerry Wood's spring debut in his second go-around with the Cubs did not go unnoticed by even the relatively sparse crowd at HoHoKam Park when he jogged in from the bullpen to start the sixth inning.

A few cheers turned into a head-turning roar by the time he reached the mound, and it rose again when he was announced over the p.a., with a smattering of fans offering a standing ovation.

``The response was great,'' said Wood, who recorded two called strikeouts on nasty breaking balls but had a couple fastballs driven for extra-base hits in his two-run inning. ``It was good to get out there and get the first one out of the way.''

As for whether the warm reception confirmed he made the right decision by returning on that discount contract, he said, ``It was never really about trying to get a reception. It was more about just being home. It's better than getting booed off the field when you come back.''

Cubs ``sick'' over news of Wainwright injury

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MESA, Ariz. - Spring Training games haven't even started yet, and the Cubs are already gaining in the National League Central race - although nobody at Fitch Park was celebrating about it.

``It's a little different now,'' Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez said of the division's look after the St. Louis Cardinals' appeared to lose All-Star starter Adam Wainwright for the season because an elbow injury.

``This guy won 40 games over the last two years. They're a different team without him,'' Ramirez added. ``He's one of the best pitchers in the National League. They're your rivals, but you don't want to see that happen to anybody.''

Wainwright is 64-34 the past four years as a starter - including 39 wins the last two - with a career 2.97 ERA.

``It makes me sick,'' said Cubs pitching coach Mark Riggins, who spent 29 seasons with the Cardinals' organization before the Cubs hired him away in 2008. ``I know what the rehab is for one of those [Tommy John] surgeries, and it just kills me when anybody has that. ... That's a pretty good blow for the Cardinals right now. That's 18 to 20 wins. That's hard to replace.''

Said Cubs manager Mike Quade: ``You want to win and compete and all the rest of it, but you don't like to see anybody get hurt. I feel bad for him. ... That's a damn shame.''

Dempster to start Opening Day for Cubs

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MESA, Ariz. - Anybody who didn't already know that a new Cubs era has dawned will learn in no uncertain terms on April 1 when for the first time since 2004 somebody not named Carlos Zambrano will be the starting pitcher for the Cubs on Opening Day.

In his first major decision since winning the manager's job last fall, Mike Quade tabbed Ryan Dempster for the opening start April 1 at home against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Zambrano, whose franchise-record streak of consecutive opening starts ends at six, is scheduled for the Cubs' second game, with newly acquired Matt Garza pitching the third game.

All three were called into Quade's office this morning and told together, the manager said.

``The bottom line is how important all three of those guys are going to be for us this year,'' said Quade, who had already decided Garza would make the third start before agonizing over the past 24 hours over which returning veteran would get the opening call.

``I don't think there was a bad decision to make,'' said Quade, who said Dempster's performance in recent seasons, especially over the full season last year, was a major factor in the decision - along with matchup considerations, including lining up Zambrano for the Cubs' road opener in Milwaukee, where he has pitched well in his career.

Zambrano, whose roller-coaster 2010 included a month in anger management followed by an 8-0 finish, had said he wanted to get the opening start but that he would be OK with Quade's decision.

Quade said Zambrano took the news well.

``I think they all understand what I expect from them,'' said Quade.

The pitchers were on the field working and not immediately available for comment when the decision was announced.

Kerry Wood was the last pitcher besides Zambrano to start an opener for the Cubs, in '04.

Dempster, who made the successful transition from closer back to frontline starter in 2008, earns his third career Opening Day start. He started openers for the Florida Marlins in 2001 and 2002.

Pujols to Cubs? Ricketts ``open-minded'' on ``mega'' contracts

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By GORDON WITTENMYER
gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

MESA, Ariz. - If the St. Louis Cardinals don't want to get anything done with Albert Pujols' contract, Cubs ownership isn't ruling out the possibility of the North Siders getting involved - the first sign of any substance suggesting the Cubs could be legitimate players for the slugger when/if he becomes a free agent next fall.

Chairman Tom Ricketts, in Mesa to address the team on the first day of full-squad workouts today, said that all he knows specifically of the Pujols situation is ``what I read in the paper.''

But even in a season in which the Cubs' major-league payroll has been cut by about 10 percent from last year, Ricketts said ownership is open to a potential ``mega'' contract if the player and the length of the contract are the right fits.

``There's going to be a little more financial flexibility at the end of the season than we've had in year's past. We'll have to assess the situation when we get there and see what's available,'' he said on the subject of any major contract commitment, adding, ``The fact is, we'll be open-minded to what we think is best for the team when that comes up.''

That could be as soon as the end of this season, when first-baseman Carlos Pena's one-year deal is up, and when nearly $40 million potentially falls off the books in three players alone (Kosuke Fukudome, Carlos Silva and Aramis Ramirez - although Ramirez has a club option for '12).

Pujols, 31, reportedly turned down a Cardinals offer said to be in the neighborhood of $200 millions for eight years, with a possible ownership stake after retirement. Now that he's reported for spring training in the final year of his contract, Pujols said he plans to have no contract discussions again until after the season.

``How many major leaguers are there? Like 300? If you ask all of them, everybody wants Pujols on their team,'' Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez said. ``But at the same time, we got Carlos Pena here, and you've got to respect your teammate. ... But to answer your question, anybody would like Pujols.''

Whether it will take the 10 years, $30 million that Pujols was rumored to be seeking when talks with the Cardinals opened - or something between that and the St. Louis offer - could be the difference in whether the Cubs decide to become serious pursuers.

``It's particularly important when you look at the length of some of the contracts behind offered for the bigger starts of the game because those are big, big, big commitments, Ricketts said. ``The length of the deal is often a bigger problem than the amount of the dollars. You have to be very careful that if you're going to sign one of those longer deals, if you're going to take on one of those guys for seven, eight, nine years, you better make sure that's the guy you want.''

Blond ambition for Cubs' Silva?

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The Cubs' biggest job battle of camp got fully underway Tuesday, with Carlos Silva, Braden Looper, Todd Wellemeyer and Casey Coleman among the candidates for the two rotation openings taking their first turns on the mound this spring for bullpen sessions.

But even if the Cubs front office, their manager, the media, the fans and many of the players see a battle for two openings at the back end of the rotation this spring, tha'ts not the way Silva sees it.

``For them [two spots are] open,'' said the highest-paid pitcher in the mix. ``And for whoever is competing [two spots are] open. But for me it's maybe only one is open, because I am one of the starters. So whatever they think, they think. Not me.''

Manager Mike Quade reiterated Tuesday that it is, indeed, a battle for two spots, and that Silva has to earn one of the jobs this spring - although Quade also said guys with track records, such as Silva and Randy Wells, will get extra consideration for that.

Silva said he doesn't mind being told he has to earn his spot again, but he thinks his big first half last year should be worth a starting job entering camp this year.

``Should be. Should be,'' said Silva, who makes $11.5 million this year in the final year of his contract. ``Whatever happened after the first half with my heart and then with my elbow, I don't think it's a reason to take me out of the rotation. But they're the boss. If I have to win my spot again, I'll do it. I don't have a problem with that.''

Silva was the Cubs' top pitcher the first half of last season, winning is first eight decisions on the way to a 9-2, 2.96 mark in his first 16 starts (100 1/3 innings) - but between a heart arrhythmia scare, elbow soreness and ineffectiveness, he made only five more starts, pitching only 12 2/3 innings (1-4, 14.21) the rest of the season.

For Silva, the only thing he has to worry about going forward is staying healthy, now that last year's elbow issues are completely behind him and his heart is a non-issue.

And even if his hefty size seems to be creeping into the conversation again after last year's disappointing finish, he says he's been around long enough to know how that stuff works.

``That doesn't bother me,'' he said. ``When you're doing good, everything's good. When you're doing bad, everything's bad.

``If you put zeroes on the board, you're doing to have the perfect weight, the best-looking face - you are the perfect guy. That's how it was. I spent 2 ½ months like that [last year]. I was the best guy. Everybody cheered for Carlos. And something bad happens, boom, you need to lose weight, you need to do this, you need to be blond.''

Zambrano, Wood, rest of Cubs open camp

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News and notes from the Cubs' opening day of spring workouts Monday:

--A new Carlos Zambrano? As always we won't know until or unless he gets through the whole season without a meltdown. But the difference this spring: No pronouncements of anything new or improved. ``I want to do more on the field than talk. I want to talk with my numbers,'' he said.

--Kerry Wood is back at his old Fitch Park locker stall, holding court on the first day of spring training like nothing happened in Cleveland or New York the past two seasons. Among the things he discussed with today's media pack were the low expectations for the team coming off back-to-back disappointing seasons: ``We have the talent here to raise the expectations. ... We have a good enough team to surprise some people and win our division, no doubt.''

Marmol deal imminent as Cubs report for spring training

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If hope can't spring eternal on the day pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're probably all in trouble.

So take the Arizona-sunshine optimism it for what it's worth as Cubs players and management talked about building on last year's 24-13 finish, with the occasional World Series mention finding its way into the conversation, as the Cubs reported today.

``I think it's very realistic,'' veteran starter Ryan Dempster said of a Cubs Series. ``You come here at 6 o'clock in the morning and there's guys working out... I think you have to go in with that mentality and believe that. Sometimes you say it and you don't really believe it, but I like our team, and I like our chances.''

Many from the Cubs' spring roster have already been in Mesa for weeks working out in anticipation of Monday's official start of practices.

``We fully expect to be in contention in the National League Central,'' general manager Jim Hendry said.

Some of the highlights and miscellaneous sights and sounds from reporting day:

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