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

February 2013 Archives

Morning Gordo: Clock ticking on Cubs' Stewart; no MRI for Castro

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A few early notes from camp as Cubs wait for A's to arrive for 2:05 game at HoHo:


Third baseman Ian Stewart (quad strain) is still "at least a week away" from taking swings and could be crunched to find enough time to make the roster, manager Dale Sveum said Thursday morning.

"If he gets on the field too late in spring training, it's going to be very difficult to get enough at-bats to evaluate, when everybody else is getting their at-bats and producing or whatever it might be,'' Sveum said. "It's going to be very difficult to make that decision."

Stewart faces an all-or-nothing proposition when it comes to earning a spot; the Cubs owe him only $500,000 of his $2 million contract if they release him before the season starts.


NO MRI FOR CASTRO -- Sveum said shortstop Starlin Castro is expected to miss two or three days before returning to action after suffering "tightness" in his left hamstring Wednesday. The injury is minor enough that no medical tests were scheduled.

JAVY TIME? Top prospect Javy Baez could be the short-term beneficiary of Castro's down time. Sveum said Baez figures to start or split the games at short while Castro's out.

TODAY'S LINEUP VS. LHP BRETT ANDERSON:

CF Dave Sappelt
2B Darwin Barney
DH Scott Hairston
LF Darnell McDonald
RF Jorge Soler
C Dioner Navarro
SS Javy Baez
1B Brent Lillibridge
3B Junior Lake

Schierholtz is Cubs' lord of the rings

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MESA, Ariz. - Nate Schierholtz doesn't know when or how he'll get it, but for the second straight year a new Cub will be presented a World Series ring while wearing a uniform not usually - ever, actually - associated with such things.

``I gave them my size a month and a half ago, that's about it,'' said Schieholtz, who spent most of last season with the eventual-champion San Francisco Giants before being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies at the trade deadline. ``I'm excited to get it, there's no doubt about that. I think everyone wants to see what it's going to look like. It's something that's priceless as a player.

``I'm excited, but I can wait .Whenever they decide the right time is that's fine."

For Schierholtz it's his second ring, the first coming in 2010, when he actually was part of the Giants' first title in San Francisco, even driving in an eighth-inning run with a two-out hit in a Game 1 victory over the Texas Rangers.

``It was a little different [this time] because I wasn't there the last two months and throughout the playoffs,'' said Schierholtz, whose old teammates voted him a full 2012 World Series share. ``But I've got a lot of good friends there, and I'm happy for what they did and what they were able to accomplish. They deserved it. I was just glad to be part of a lot of good years there."

Fast-forward to a Cubs team that has gone so long without a championship they didn't even have World Series rings the last time the Cubs won.

Fast-forward to a Cubs team in a major rebuilding process that Schierholtz chose over contenders such as the New York Yankees because, he said, of a greater opportunity to play.

Fast-forward to the moment - whenever it comes - that Schierholtz gets his World Series ring, whether in a public display in San Francisco in mid- to late summer or more privately in the Cubs' clubhouse this season, the way Derrek Lee and Todd Hollandsworth got theirs from the Florida Marlins in 2004.

If it has any value to the Cubs beyond Schierholtz' experience, it's another chance for some of the younger players in particular to watch - as manager Dale Sveum had them do, from the top of the dugout in St. Louis last year when transplanted first base coach Dave McKay got his ring in a ceremony in St. Louis with the Cubs there.

``It's a day you never forget when that person gives you that ring," Sveum said. "When you have people who maybe haven't had the fortune of seeing it, it just brings everything back to, `This is what it's all about.'

``It's a pretty emotional, special day for whoever's receiving it, and when you get a chance to see it, I don't think it hurts anything."

Well traveled Jackson settles into first spring start for Cubs

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MESA, Ariz. - If Edwin Jackson ever had trouble making new friends or adjusting to new places that issue faded away a long time ago.

And long before playing for seven teams in eight years before signing that four-year deal with the Cubs over the winter.

``I'm a military brat. I'm kind of born on the fly,'' said the right-hander, who makes his first start for the Cubs Tuesday afternoon against the Colorado Rockies at HoHoKam Park.

``I've been living out of a suitcase for a long time. I never have a chance to get bored with a city, I look at it that way.''

And if his $52-million contract finally affords that chance with the Cubs, at least it's Chicago, a place he enjoyed while pitching for the White Sox in 2010-11.

``Having some stability is definitely a positive for me,'' he said, ``to get to be around a group of guys for multiple years.''

Jackson, 29, was signed to be a linchpin for the pitching staff as the team transitions toward contender status - over the next three years, according to the front office's anticipated timeline.

His long-term status assures, barring injuries, at least two starters the Cubs believe they can count on going into next year, along with Jeff Samardzija, as they watch for what might develop in the system, evaluate Scott Baker's return from Tommy John surgery and see what's available next off-season.

``He's been great,'' manager Dale Sveum said of the right-hander through three weeks of camp. ``He's got that personality and work ethic and professionalism, and teammates like him, obviously, already.

``He's one of them guys that just breeds what we're trying to do here: bring character in and great people and obviously guys that can produce as well. That's all going great, so we'll see what happens.''

D-Train returns to Cubs, derails with shoulder injury

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GLENDALE, Ariz. - It took Dontrelle Willis more than 10 years to get back on a mound for the Cubs' organization - and just seven pitches to head back off with an injury.

The former All-Star of Florida Marlins "D-Train" fame suffered shoulder tightness during the eighth inning of Monday's spring training game against the Los Angeles Dodgers and left the mound with the trainer.

``It's a minor setback. I don't think it's going to be anything serous,'' said the visibly dejected left-hander. ``But it's just frustrating because I finally get a chance, and I hit the ground running, and an injury happens. It's frustrating. But if guys can overcome ACL tears, I'll be able to overcome this and come back.''

Willis, a Rookie of the Year in 2003 a year after the Cubs traded him as a minor-leaguer to the Marlins, re-signed with the Cubs as a minor-league free agent assigned to minor-league camp as he makes another comeback after a long, mysterious decline since his 22-win All-Star season in 2005.

He had been invited to join the team as an extra bullpen pitcher each of the first three Cactus League, and made his first appearance Monday after starter Carlos Villanueva's five-batter start (pitch limit) created a domino effect that used up most of the pitchers.

Willis, 31, said he felt the shoulder tighten on the second pitch to Nick Evans. He then threw five straight balls and left.

Willis represented a no-risk flyer when they signed him and is not considered a part of any of their pitching plans, short of a sudden rebirth of power and command.

Manager Dale Sveum didn't even seem to know much about him before the game, declining to comment on his ability or comeback chances.

``He's in minor league camp,'' Sveum said. ``That's all there is to it.''

Said Willis: ``I'm just frustrated today because I really wanted to play and get in there and mix it up,'' said. ``It's early so hopefully I get enough time to get back.''

"Poised" Rule 5 kid could be factor in Cubs' pen

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MESA, Ariz. -- Day One of the Rule 5-guy watch went well enough that Cubs manager Dale Sveum sounded Sunday like right-hander Hector Rondon could be of actual use to the Cubs during the season, without needing an extended DL stint or disappearing act in the shadows of the Cubs' bullpen to keep a longer-term place in the organization.

Rule 5 picks must remain on a team's 25-man big-league roster all season or be offered back to the original organization for half the drafting price.

Rondon, the Venezuela native once considered a top starting pitching prospect, missed much of the last two seasons because of Tommy John surgery and a subsequent setback with the elbow.

He has looked healthy in camp so far after a high-velocity winter-ball stint, and Sveum liked what he saw in Rondon's spring debut Saturday against the Los Angeles Angels, giving up only a two-out hit in a four-batter, scoreless inning of work.

``It was nice to see Rondon in action for the first time,'' said Sveum, who lauded his ability to fight back after falling behind in counts during Saturday's first glimpse. ``He threw about three or four cutters that were real quality. That's a pitch he's going to have to learn to use .And he got back in the count one time with a slider after throwing a scud slider. It was impressive. He showed a lot of poise out there.''

Rondon is far more mature and experience than last year's Rule 5 pick, Class A right-hander Lendy Castillo, who spent a large chunk of the season on the DL with a non-arm-related muscle pull. His only claim to fame last year was setting off a bench-clearing melee in Washington by hitting Nationals kid-star Bryce Harper with a pitch - a series of events that was laughable to guys in the Cubs' clubhouse who knew Castillo didn't have the command to pitch with the intent the Nationals assumed.

If Rondon has shown anything so far, it's that he's no Lendy Castillo.

And the "kid" who turns 26 on Tuesday might even have an edge in the battle for one of the last bullpen spots for more reasons than his Rule 5 status.

``He was way ahead [of Castillo] a long time ago, before the injuries he had,'' Sveum said. ``He's faced Triple-A hitters, he's been in big-league camp before. He's kind of a veteran-type minor-league player that has a good arm that we'd take a shot at.''


Sveum: Baker to join Cubs rotation in mid-April

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TEMPE, Ariz. - Cubs manager Dale Sveum said he anticipates right-hander Scott Baker getting his first spring start sometime in the middle of March, then opening the season on the disabled list and - barring setback - making his Cubs debut sometime in mid-April.

``He's just right on schedule,'' Sveum said after Baker impressed his pitching coach and himself in a 45-pitch bullpen session Satuday. ``Knock on wood, there hasn't been any setbacks, and he's feeling great. The effort level obviously picked up [Saturday]. I'm just looking forward to getting him against live hitters.''

Baker, who appears healthy after missing all of last season because of Tommy John surgery, is scheduled to throw another bullpen session Tuesday.

``It's another step in the right direction,'' said Baker, who added he isn't testing his strength as much as regaining form right now. ``For me, [the strength level] is more mechanical than physical. I'm throwing with as much intensity as my mechanics allow right now. You hear a million times, stay within yourself. That's never more true than now.''

If Matt Garza (lat strain) is ready to start the season on time, it leaves Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva competing for Baker's spot in the opening rotation. Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson and Scott Feldman are in, barring injury.



TEMPE, Ariz. - The diagnosis doesn't help his chances, but Ian Stewart says he's confident that neither his injured left quad nor his non-guaranteed contract status will prevent him from being the Cubs' third baseman on Opening Day.

Some of the related facts suggest a little more urgency and uncertainty surrounding the issue than Stewart acknowledges.

MRI results revealed a "mild to moderate" strain that manager Dale Sveum said Saturday will keep Stewart out of games for at least three weeks, "which puts you at three weeks before Opening Day, so if he's capable and the leg's fine, it'll be a cram session, that's for sure.''

Stewart, who downplayed the lost time as "a little roadblock," has a standard one-year contract that top team officials went out of their way to describe as "non-guaranteed" when they inked the $2 million.

All standard one-year contracts come with the stipulation that clubs must pay only 1/6 the contract value in termination pay if such players are cut in mid-March (specifically March 16 this year) or ΒΌ termination pay if cut between that date and the opener.

``To be honest, that's not even a focus of mine,'' he said. ``Obviously, there's a business side of the game, but I came back here to be a part of the major league team, so I'm not even thinking about that right now.''

It might not take long to cross his mind of Luis Valbuena (home runs each of the past two games) keeps hitting while Stewart is out. Sveum loves Valbuena and said Friday Valbuena could win that job even if Stewart weren't hurt.

A few days earlier, Sveum said proclaimed third base was Stewart's ``job to win, not his job to lose.''

But Stewart doesn't seem to think that the potential for missing up to two weeks of games will hurt his chances to make the team.

``I would hope not,'' he said. ``I feel like I was brought back to be a part of the team and help this team, and I feel like I can do that. This is unfortunate, but I think if this was towards the end of camp or maybe in the middle it'd be a different story.''

Sveum plans to load Stewart up on at-bats over the final two weeks of March, assuming his legs, surgically repaired wrist and will can handle them.

Meanwhile, Valbuena said, "I'd be so happy to win that job," and when asked about Sveum's confidence in him, added:

``Dale feels like that because he knows I play 100 percent - more than 100 percent - every time he gives me an opportunity.''


Cubs 3B Stewart gets MRI, "stays positive"

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MESA, Ariz. -- Another spring training, another damn injury for Ian Stewart.

``I'm just trying to stay positive,'' said the Cub third baseman, who after two years of issues with his left wrist finally seemed to prove it was fixed Thursday - just in time to strain his left quadriceps running the bases in an intrasquad game.

``I've had enough stress and stuff to worry about since [going on the DL in] June. I'm just going to roll with it and hopefully get this MRI and find out it's a mild strain or something, and come back soon.''

Stewart, the guy the Cubs want to see earn the third base job after signing him back on a one-year, $2 million deal, headed out for the precautionary MRI Friday morning, less than 24 hours after feeling the quad give as he rounded first on a double in his first game action since wrist surgery in July.

``I pulled up noticeably and even [first base coach] Dave [McKay] asked me, `A little more effort?' '' Stewart said. ``I explained to him what happened, and he was like, `OK.' Trust me, I would have run hard my first time on a baseball field in eight months.''

That's as much of the irritation as the actual soreness in the leg.

``It felt so good and so bad at the same time,'' he said. ``I'm just glad it had nothing to do with the wrist and all the work I put in there, that that's OK. It is frustrating because we worked really hard in the off-season. But I don't think it's going to be anything too serious.

``We're going to take it easy for a couple days and get some treatment and go from there.''

As for the wrist, "it felt great," said Stewart, who batted just once in his first competitive at-bat since June 12.

``It's not nearly as good as your first hit in the big leagues, but you realize how much you can lose by being out there that long for an injury and stuff. I felt like it was my first year back in camp and playing in a big-league game again.

``Even though it was just spring training in an intrasquad, it was very important for me to come out and do that.''


VITTERS UPDATE: Infield/outfield prospect Josh Vitters, who was scratched from Friday's intrasquad game, also because of a quad strain, said he wasn't sure if an MRI was in his future.

His status is to be evaluated daily.

``It's just an annoying kind of thing,'' he said. ``It's still early. That's part of the reason everyone wants to be cautious. But I think I'll be fine with it.''

Cubs' Garza expects to avoid DL

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MESA, Ariz. -- Cubs right-hander Matt Garza says he's in good spirits, and more important to him, he's confident he can be fully recovered in time to open the season on time.

``I'm not worried about spring starts, I'm more concerned about being ready for opening week, Opening Day,'' said Garza, who suffered a "mild strain" in his left lat while throwing batting practice to teammates Sunday.

``Right now if I stay on my pace and stay patient and just let it heal, I'll be fine. I'll be ready.''

Garza isn't expected to start throwing in practice again until next week as he gets treatment and rests the injury. That assures he'll miss at least one scheduled spring start.

But he's already feeling much better, and unintentionally proved it by throwing a towel across the clubhouse into a bin left-handed.

And the Cactus League delay shouldn't prevent him from being ready on time to still be in the Opening Day mix, he said, and it might even be a positive considering he was already ahead of schedule with his throwing program after a winter of recuperation and strength-building following last year's elbow injury.

``Obviously, it didn't feel like that at the time, but maybe that's what it was,'' he said. ``Maybe I came out too strong, too fast and this is just kind of a way to slow down. So it is what it is, and now just kind of get back to work.''

The fact spring training is about a week longer than usual this year also plays into his favor.

``That's even better,'' he said. ``Like Doc [Stephen] Adams says, time doesn't hurt anybody, so relax and enjoy it a little bit because it'll probably be your last time off.''


Let the hype begin: Cubs' prospects Soler, Baez on tap

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MESA, Ariz. - Neither will make the Opening Day roster, but let the hype begin for two of the Cubs' most anticipated prospects as spring games unofficially begin Thursday with an intrasquad game.

Shortstop Javy Baez and outfielder Jorge Soler - ranked 16th and 34th, respectively on Baseball America's top-100 prospects list - might be in just the right place at the right time for a pair of players looking for playing time in their first big-league spring trainings.

Manager Dale Sveum said he's "very excited" to finally get a look at the touted twosome and because of a longer-than-usual schedule of exhibition games expects to get an especially long look for guys who won't compete for big-league jobs.

``We have so many split-squad games, and they're going to get quite a few games in before anything happens getting-sent-down-wise,'' There's a lot of at-bats out there.''

Unofficially, those start today when Soler and Baez bat fifth and sixth, respectively for the "Blue" team in the first of two intrasquad games leading up to Saturday's Cactus League opener.

``Obviously, those are the guys you talk about that are on your radar in the minor-league systems that have all those God-given tools,'' Sveum said, ``the speed, the arm, the power, hopefully the hitting ability - meaning OPS and those things.

``It's a pretty special talent and bat speed that those guys have that you want to see in person at game speed.''


Samardzija to get Cubs' opening assignment?

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Matt Garza's lat strain isn't considered serious, and for now the Cubs expect his spring schedule to get pushed back by only one exhibition start.

But even if he gets enough starts this spring to avoid opening the season on the disabled list, the shorter prep time has a good chance of taking him out of the Opening Day mix, which could assure Jeff Samardzija his first opening start.

Even if Samardzija doesn't see it that way.

``I mean, I know how Garza is. I know he's a competitor. I know how big of a year he wants to have,'' Samardzija said. ``To count Garza out wouldn't be the smartest thing to do.''

Manager Dale Sveum said it's too soon to make that call. In fact, he doesn't plan to do it until closer to March 20 and has even mentioned the unlikely Edwin Jackson as a candidate.

``I want the competition,'' Samardzija said. ``I want me and Garza and everyone to compete every [spring] start for that spot. It's only going to make us all better.

``Obviously, it was a given before anything else happened that I was going to go and give everything I had and try to earn that spot. And nothing's changed. So I'm going to stay on track to be ready for the first week of the season.''

Cubs Barney on Phillips Gold Glove grousing: "It is what it is"

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MESA, Ariz. -- If Brandon Phillips wants Darwin Barney's Gold Glove so bad, he can have it as far as Barney's concerned - as long as Barney gets Phillips' playoff appearance in exchange.

Phillips, the flashy, talkative second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, has made a habit of grousing about losing the 2012 Gold Glove to Barney, most recently telling mlb.com this week he thought he got "punk'd" when he was told Barney won.

``I can't make myself win the Gold Glove, even though I should have,'' Phillips told the website. ``When I didn't win, I was surprised. I wasn't mad at all, but surprised. I thought I got punk'd.''

Barney, who tied the major-league record for consecutive errorless games in a season (141), tries not to pay attention to Phillips' complaints but keeps hearing about them through friends and media.

``The thing is at this point it's interesting reading something like that because for me it's not about Gold Gloves right now,'' he said. ``It's not about myself. It's about the team and what we're trying to achieve this year.

Phillips, who has won three Gold Gloves, also told reporters that he believes managers and coaches who vote for the award snubbed him because they don't like his flashy style.

"I do it with flair because baseball is a boring game,'' he said. ``Do I think that's one of the main reasons I didn't win the Gold Glove? Yeah, I can say that."

Phillips tends to leave out Barney's record errorless streak, his range, better fielding percentage at the position (.997 to .992) and a defensive Wins Above Replacement number more than double Phillips' (league-leading 3.6 to 1.6).

``At this point next year if we've made the playoffs and given ourselves a chance to win the World Series that would be the last thing on my mind,'' Barney said. ``But I keep getting asked about it. It is what it is.''

MESA, Ariz. -- After an MRI revealed a "mild strain" in his lower left lat area, the team said Tuesday that Cubs right-hander Matt Garza will be shut down for at least a week, which could put his status for the start of the regular season in doubt.

Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer described the news as "positive."

``It's safe to say it pushes back his first Cactus League start,'' he said. ``What it means for the regular season it's clearly much too early to say, but we felt like it was really good news. It is a mild strain. We do think it'll be about a week and he'll be pain-free, based on the MRI.

``We're optimistic. It was certainly a positive read from out standpoint.''

Garza, who spent the last two months of the 2012 season on the disabled list because of a "stress reaction" in his elbow, suffered the latest injury - where the lat meets the oblique on the left side - while throwing batting practice to teammates Sunday.

Campana "humbled" by Cubs' fans reaction to his departure

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MESA, Ariz. -- Even Tony Campana figured he'd be the odd man out when the Cubs finally made room on the roster for new free agent outfielder Scott Hairston.

``I kind of made myself ready for it just in case it happened,'' he said.

What he didn't expect was the high-pitched outcry among Cub fans as their favorite, speedy, scrappy outfielder was designated for assignment eight days ahead of Monday's trade to Arizona.

``It was kind of crazy,'' said Campana, who led the club with 30 stolen bases despite being a part-time player last year. ``I wasn't really expecting that. I thought [the DFA] was going to happen to me. When everybody got so mad, it was kind of a humbling experience for me.''

Campana, the most popular player by far during Cubs Convention discourse last month, also was a favorite among teammates and field staff. But general manager Jed Hoyer said the club's relative depth in the outfield and lack of pitching depth left Campana as the eventual choice after a "tough" decision-making process.

"The fans here are awesome. They were always awesome to me,'' Campana said. ``And the Cubs have been awesome to me. I'm kind of sad to go, but excited to start a new thing with the D-backs.''

So what had he been doing with his downtime since getting DFA'd?

``I found a [batting] cage,'' he said ``I was paying to hit in a cage and paying for a gym for the last week. I'm glad to actually get to go hit and lift for free now.''

MESA, Ariz. - The Cubs are bracing for the possibility that right-hander Matt Garza could open the season on the disabled list, based on the often-lingering nature of the kind lat injury he suffered during a throwing session Sunday.

Garza is expected to have an MRI in the next day or so, and the Cubs remain optimistic that the strain to his left lat isn't serious.

But even though Garza has six weeks to get ready for his first regular-season start, the fact he's coming off an elbow injury that sidelined him the final two months of last season is just one more reason the Cubs say they'll take a cautious, deliberate approach to his recovery.

``We're not going to rush this guy, that's for sure,'' general manager Jed Hoyer said. ``The good news is his arm feels really strong. He was throwing the ball really well. It's unfortunate for sure, and it's going to set him back a little bit. Our concern was obviously with the elbow injury that shut him down at the end of the year, and that still feels good. At this point it's a little wait and see.''

Former Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster had a similar lat injury last season and missed three weeks on the disabled list.

``They are lingering-type injuries,'' Hoyer said. ``That's the challenge with these injuries. That's why we need to figure out exactly the severity.

``You don't want to bring a guy back too early and have him re-injure it. So you do end up being pretty patient with these. ... Hopefully, this is the kind of injury that happens early and he has plenty of time to recover.''

Valbuena taking nothing for granted in Cubs camp

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Luis Valbuena, a .224 career-hitting infielder who was released by the Toronto Blue Jays at the end of spring training last year, already has a spot on the 2013 Cubs' roster as far as manager Dale Sveum is concerned.

Understandably, Valbuena doesn't necessarily see it that way.

``I don't feel like I'm on the team,'' said Valbuena, 27, who was claimed on waivers by the Cubs the day before the season started last year. ``I have to work hard like I did the last two years. I don't feel like I'm on the 40-man [roster] or on the team. I don't feel comfortable. I feel like I have to play 100 percent.''

Valbuena, who got most of the starts at third base when Ian Stewart went down with a season-ending wrist injury in June, hit just .219 with little power and no stolen bases for the Cubs last year.

But he handled third base especially well defensively and has the versatility to play the middle infield - maybe even left field, which has done three times in the big leagues.

``Valbuena's going to be with us,'' Sveum said. ``He can do too many things. had a heck of a winter ball, and people know how much I like the guy, and what he did for us last year. He had a heck of a lot better offensive year than the .215 or whatever it was.''

Valbuena still is looking for his first full season in the big leagues after spending parts of the last five years with Seattle, Cleveland and the Cubs. After the Cubs claimed him in 2012 and put him on the roster, he was quickly sent to Class AAA Iowa three days into the season and eventually recalled to replace the DL'd Stewart.

Over the winter, Valbuena hit .306 for his Venezuelan winter ball team, with six homers and 15 doubles in 51 games. And he was in the running for the league MVP award into the final week.

He played deeper into the winter than he had in recent years and says he feels good at the plate coming into the spring with hopes of carrying the hot hand into the frigid April start of the season.

Until then, Sveum said he'll get Valbuena playing time at several positions and keep the lefty hitter in mind as he watches to see whether Stewart proves this spring that can earn the starting third base job.

``Valbuena's sitting there, seeing what happens,'' Sveum said.

And taking nothing for granted. ``I'm just competing right now,'' Valbuena said.

Cubs' Wood, Villanueva plan to change Sveum's mind

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MESA, Ariz. - Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva don't like what they're hearing, so they plan to do something about it.

The two guys left out of the Cubs' starting rotation plans outlined by manager Dale Sveum on Thursday both said on Friday that they plan to try to change his mind.

``There's always time to change somebody's mind,'' said Villanueva, who signed as a free agent with the Cubs this winter because of relationships with Sveum and pitching coach Chris Bosio - and for a chance to start. ``Nothing's set in stone. That's why we're competing.''

The Cubs have said since before spring training began that Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza and big-ticket free agent Edwin Jackson are the three locks for the opening rotation. Veteran starter Scott Baker, another free agent addition, will join the rotation when his more cautious post-Tommy John-surgery spring work is done - probably a week or two into the season.

That left Scott Feldman, Wood and Villanueva competing for two spots in the opening five - one spot once Baker returns.

But Sveum said on Thursday, ``Feldman's going to be one of the starters.''

Sveum later added there weren't any guarantees beyond the top three. But the intention was clear.

``I'm just going to go do what I've got to do, and then it's up to them,'' said Wood, who, like Villanueva, could be headed to the bullpen if he doesn't change management's minds. ``I'll just pitch as well as I can and see what happens.''

``Obviously, it would be nice to come in and be told, `You're our guy no matter what,' '' Villanueva said. ``But some guys are like Felix Hernandez; they get seven years, 180 mil. And some guys still have to fight for it.

``Being among the latter doesn't really bother me that much.''

Wood and Villanueva both say they worked hard this winter to be ready to start. Both consider themselves starters - Villanueva said he's prepared for 180-plus innings despite never exceeding 133 in his 11-year professional career.

``That's because I really haven't had the chance to go from Day 1 and start,'' said Villanueva, who went 5-7 with a 4.50 ERA in 16 starts for Toronto last year (2-0, 3.24 in 22 relief appearances). ``I've always seen myself as a starter. Even when I was in the bullpen.''

But neither Wood nor Villanueva says he's upset about Sveum's vision for the rotation.

``I know it's going to be a story. But there's always a story,'' Villanueva said. ``I won't complain either way. Whatever they want me to do I will do, and I will gladly do it, and do the best I can.''

He also knows: ``I'm a guy that's seen how quickly things can change, and every year it seems like it happens. I mean, last year in Toronto we lost three guys in a week, and guys were pressed into starting. ... I just want an opportunity to show what I can do.''

Wood said he didn't assume he had a spot in the rotation when he came to camp anyway.

``I want to start. That's what I've done my whole career,'' the left-hander said, ``so we'll hit that bridge when we come to it''

Cubs' Brett Jackson has `every intention of making this team'

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Anthony Rizzo, one of those fresh, young face-of-the-franchise guys for a Cubs team in transition, stood before a dozen media members Thursday morning, stared into the TV cameras and talked about the Cubs' big plans, and his part of them as he enters his first full season in the big leagues.

A few feet away, almost literally in the shadows, outfielder Brett Jackson quietly got dressed for practice.

Quietly is not how Brett Jackson typically does things. And the shadows have never been the ultra-confident, California kid's natural habitat.

But one year after he and Rizzo were two of the hottest topics in camp -- inextricably linked for six weeks as spring training's rising-star prospects for a young, rebuilding team under new management - they find themselves in far different places.

Rizzo has become the cornerstone first baseman whose respectable slugging exploits have been exaggerated in Cubs marketing campaigns over the winter.

Jackson has become the once-brightest prospect whose astounding strikeout numbers last year have put him at a crossroads for a team that may not even have a job opening for him to try to win after adding two veteran outfielders over the winter.

Jackson's response:

``I'm more confident now than I was then, and I have every intention of making this team out of spring.''

If that sounds counterintuitive - at least - well, ``Yeah, you'd think so,'' Jackson says, explaining, ``I think I used my struggle in my 60 games or whatever it was as motivation and - not that I needed more incentive - but as incentive to become the player I know I can be. The fact that I struggled was an eye-opener in the sense that it showed me not that I can't do something, but it showed me how I can do something.''

Jackson said he was ``mentally and athletically 100 percent prepared'' for his big-league callup in early August last summer but admittedly, physically, his swing cost him - as in 59 strikeouts in 120 big-league at-bats, and 217 between Class AAA and the majors overall.

Only the White Sox' Adam Dunn (222) struck out more in professional baseball last year.

``What last year gave me, if nothing else, was the ability to figure out what I needed to change,'' Jackson, 24, said.

So did manager Dale Sveum, hitting coach James Rowson and assistant hitting coach Rob Deer - all of whom worked with him to make changes to his swing when he traveled to Arizona in November for the special hitting sessions.

Even now, Deer - the slugging outfielder whose strikeout totals were legendary as a player - works and talks with Jackson every day, keeping him confident and focused on the adjustments the club wants to see.

The difference in his stance and swing - lower hand position, more compact swing - are noticeable even to the amateur observers.

``It was a challenge to make that adjustment, but I'm very content with the way it's come to be over the off-season and how it's feeling in the first few days of spring,'' Jackson said. ``I feel I'm ready to compete.''

As Jackson talks, he glances over his shoulder at Rizzo holding court and recalls Rizzo's .141 struggles in his two-month debut in 2011 with San Diego.

``I look up to him in that sense, the way he put behind himself what happened in 2011,'' Jackson said, ``and used that as motivation to show people what he's capable of. He did that.

``It's a perfect example of the situation I'm in. I don't think I need more motivation, but I have that motivation.''

And the continued belief that he'll join Rizzo as a cornerstone piece for this team.

``Absolutely,'' he said. ``I don't discount myself as a player based on the small sample size of the games I played.

``Physically I've made an adjustment, and mentally and athletically as an outfielder and as a hitter I think I'm becoming someone who can really help a team win, can really help the team the way a game changer can.''

It's why he put in the work with the manager and coaches in November, why he was at spring camp weeks before position players were scheduled, why he plays the game at all, he says - just as Rizzo finishes his impromptu press conference.

``It's not to be in front of 100 cameras,'' Jackson says, ``It's to be winning 100 games.''

Sox-fan Hairston right at home with Cubs

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MESA, Ariz. - Living in Naperville as a kid, Scott Hairston used to regularly make his way to Wrigley Field to watch Sammy Sosa play, even though his dad, Jerry, played for the White Sox for almost all of a 17-year career in the majors.

``I was a fan of the players on the Cubs,'' Scott said Wednesday on his first day at Fitch Park, just three days after his two-year, $5-million contract was finalized. ``But my dad played for the Sox so I was a Sox fan.

``I used to love coming to Wrigley Field, especially in the late '90s when Sammy was doing his thing. I sat in the bleachers a few times when he was hitting all those home runs.

``That was a good time to be in Chicago.''

The only time better? That would be now, as far as Hairston is concerned.

The outfielder who had a breakout year with the New York Mets in 2012 - including a career high 20 home runs and an .803 OPS - is projected to be the right-handed part of a platoon in Sosa's old spot in right field, along with fellow newcomer Nate Schierholtz.

He could also see time in center and left, and he's capable of filling in at second if needed.

Whatever the position, the location he seems to appreciate as much as anything is Chicago. ``Feels good,'' he said. ``This is the first day I've put on a Cubs hat in my life. I know it's going to be fun here.''

How fun could depend on how healthy he is. Until avoiding the disabled list last year, Hairston, 32, had spent time on the DL in seven consecutive seasons, for everything from a separated shoulder to an oblique strain.

He said a training focus that increased his flexibility helped him stay off the DL in 2012. Between that and a Mets outfield situation that provided lots of playing time he flourished.

``If I'm able to get the plate appearances I did last year, I feel I can make a difference on the team,'' said Hairston, whose brother Jerry Jr. (2005-06) and uncle John (1969) also played for the Cubs.

``I'm just going to be try my best to be ready whenever Dale [Sveum] needs me in whatever role that may be.''

For now, that figures to mostly include Sosa's old stomping grounds.

It already includes wearing Sosa's old No. 21 - a coincidence, he swears.

``That's what they gave me,'' said Hairston, whose wife informed him of his uniform number when the team's website tweeted it out. ``I was like, `What?'

``I'll take it. It's Sammy - who wouldn't want it?''

At which point he was informed Sosa wants to see the number retired by the Cubs - never mind that noted and/or notorious Cubs Jason Marquis, Milton Bradley and Tyler Colvin have worn the number since Sammy.

``I'll enjoy it while I can,'' Hairston said, smiling.

The Cubs won't mind if he takes his time.

Fight Club: All good with Cubs' Jackson and Clevenger these days

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MESA, Ariz. -- Today they're laughing together. Five months ago, Cubs catcher Steve Clevenger was flailing at anything in a Washington Nationals uniform, and Edwin Jackson - a guy in a Nats uniform - was being held back as he shouted and pointed over several teammates at Clevenger.

Jackson, smiling, still feigns dismay and memory lapse over the suggestion he was particularly animated during last September's bench-clearing incident between the Cubs and his Nationals team in Washington.

But he remembers enough about that night to bring a memento to spring training for his new teammate, Clevenger:

``He's got a new nickname,'' Jackson said, `` `Money.' ''

Money?

``I guess 'cause he got fined, and it cost him money,'' Clevenger said, laughing.

Clevenger who also was fined - ejected and suspended, too -- never encountered Jackson personally before that night. Jackson, the Cubs' big free agent this off-season, never met Clevenger before becoming the Cubs' newest starting pitcher this winter.

Any hard feelings were long gone by the time Jackson threw his first practice pitch to Clevenger.

``It is what it is,'' Clevenger said. ``We talked about it. It's over. We're teammates now, and we kind of laugh about it and joke about it.''


Kerry Wood returns to Fitch in new role for Cubs

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MESA, Ariz. -- Kerry Wood was back in uniform as the Cubs held their first workouts of the spring with pitchers and catchers Tuesday, working with pitchers in a special instructor role.

``It's just the presence of those guys,'' manager Dale Sveum said of the value of having former players of that stature participate in camp. ``Sometimes a young player might listen to a Kerry Wood more than a Dale Sveum.''

Of course, any of those players who were on the team last year were teammates of the star-crossed former All-Star starter and closer, who retired during last season.

Wood's long-term role with the club is still being defined. For now, Sveum says, he expects Wood to help as an instructor during stretches this spring and even during the season.

``It gives him the opportunity, too, to get on this side of the wall and see if he enjoys this part of it,'' Sveum said, ``front office, development, whatever it might be.''

Cubs' Samardzija open to talking contract during season

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MESA, Ariz. -- If the Cubs are going to get Jeff Samardzija to bite on their next multiyear offer, they'll have to come at him stronger than they did last fall, when they floated a discount deal that would have sucked up at least one of his free agency years.

It worked for Starlin Castro, the young All-Star shortstop who chose long-term security for his family over projected market value when he signed that seven-year, $60 million deal last summer.

It's not about the same kind of security for Samardzija.

Samardzija, who made a powerful 170-inning debut as a full-time starter last year, says he's glad to see the Cubs want what he does: a long-term relationship.

But he's not ready to commit until he shows what he believes is frontline-starter quality for a full season - and seems anxious to put that whole innings-limit thing behind him and cut loose.

``It doesn't really make much sense to sit down and try to negotiate something when I don't even have a full season under my belt,'' said the presumptive front-runner for the Opening Day slot in the rotation. ``Obviously, now we're just talking a potential kind of thing.''

And "potential" usually comes attached to discount numbers during contract talks.

``I don't know; I'm not a GM - you tell me,'' Samardzija says. ``I'm just saying I want to know where I stand as a whole, from beginning to end, start to finish. `I did this for a full season,' and then you can start comparing to other guys and this and that.

``I'd rather have some more concrete stats and some concrete evidence on what's going on. ... I think a big thing is I'm a healthy dude - knock on wood - and I work hard. And I just want to put as much on my side of the court as possible.''

Even with a rough June, Samardzija led the Cubs' staff with a 3.81 ERA and won nine games during a 101-loss season in 2012 - going 4-6 with a 2.58 ERA and 1.019 WHIP in 13 starts after June.

``What he did his last eight starts - [God dang], if that pans out for 30-whatever starts, you've got a legitimate No. 1-type guy,'' manager Dale Sveum said.

That's the idea, from both Samardzija's and the team's perspective - the team acknowledging as much by making him the center of one of its winter ticket-sale campaigns, with a red Christmas bow on his hat and all.

Samardzija has no fear of proving it on a year-to-year basis until the team's offer catches up.

``When we feel we're on the same page, then we'll get it done,'' he said.

No animosity. No rush. No problem. That's just how confident Samardzija is in his ability and how sure his agent is of his long-term value.

For now, it's ``so far on the back burner it's really not even an issue,'' he says.

But if the Cubs want to re-open talks in the short-term, even during the season, he has no problem with that.

``I'm a professional, and I can do off-field stuff and on-field stuff simultaneously,'' he said. ``I'm a multi-tasker. I work out and I run and play baseball at the same time.

``I look at it as a positive. If they wnt to talk to me about that stuff, and we're going back and forth, then obviously I'm wanted. I'm not looking at it as a negative. We're not getting in each other's face. ...

``The ball's in their court, and that's really all there is to it.''

Cubs' Marmol: MLB "told me" it approved trade to Angels

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MESA, Ariz. -- Just how far into the process did that Carlos Marmol-Dan Haren near-trade get when the Cubs and Los Angeles Angels nearly swapped pitchers back in November?

The Cubs have said more than once the deal was never completed, suggesting Marmol - whose consent was needed to waive his no-trade rights -- got ahead of the facts when he told reporters in the Dominican Republic that he'd been traded.

But on his first day at Fitch Park for spring training, Marmol insisted Monday that he had especially good reason to believe the trade was done:

``Oh, yeah, major league baseball told me that I was traded. They told me they approved the trade,'' he said.

That would mean the money heading to the Angels in the deal would have been set.

``And the next day,'' Marmol said, ``I was told, `No, you're not going there.' ''

What's not in dispute is that the Cubs nixed the deal in the late stages of talks after determining that hip issues in Haren's medical records, in addition to well known back issues, weren't worth the risk. Haren later signed a one-year free agent deal with the Washington Nationals for $13 million.

``Well, I'm happy that I'm still here,'' Marmol said. ``Everybody knows I love being with the Cubs. I love being in Chicago.''

The Cubs' closer is in the final year of a three-year deal that pays $9.8 million this year.


Cub' Marmol "pissed off" at "lies" told in abuse case

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By GORDON WITTENMYER
gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

MESA, Ariz. - A ''pissed off" Carlos Marmol wasted no time on his first day at spring camp telling his side of the story involving accusations of sexual abuse leveled against him in a Dominican Republic court by a 24-year-old woman

``The stuff she says is not true, and I proved [it],'' the Cubs' closer said Monday. ``It is about money. When they go to the police, the first thing they did was ask for money right away. And I know I didn't do anything. ...

``I gave a ride to this girl, and she pretended that I hurt and tried to have sex with her. And I never did that. It's very frustrating. ...

``Lawyers over there, they made a mistake [thinking that because] we got money and we play baseball, they think everybody's stupid.''

Marmol, who first heard of the allegations when his accusers made their claims during a radio interview shortly after the alleged Oct. 28 incident, has filed a countersuit against the woman claiming extortion and blackmail.

He said he hopes it results in jail time for the woman.

No criminal charges were filed. But the civil case was sent from Marmol's hometown to a higher court in the capital city of Santo Domingo on Friday - a move he says surprised him based on the evidence.

He's not sure whether he'll be required to leave camp at some point to attend court hearings.

``They try to hurt me because everybody knows me in the Dominican and in Chicago, too,'' he said. ``They tried to make me scared because they're going to hurt my reputation in baseball and my future ... as a way they can get money. But I'm not going to give them my money because I didn't do anything.''

The Cubs have openly and strongly supported Marmol since investigating the circumstances in the wake of newspaper reports the past two weeks.

``Any incident like that, especially if it involves a woman, you have to take it extremely seriously,'' team president Theo Epstein said Sunday. ``Obviously we weren't there. But every piece of information that we were able to gather backs up Carlos' story that he's guilty of no wrongdoing whatsoever and may in fact be a victim here if this case continues to be pursued like this.''

Said Marmol: ``I'm glad that they support me and they know that I'm telling the truth and they know what's going on.

Marmol, who says he didn't know the woman personally but knew of her from their small hometown, suggested other players have been victims of similar attempted shakedowns.

Regardless, he says he doesn't believe it will affect his performance this spring or into the season.

``I know myself,'' he said. ``I don't worry about this, because I know what I feel. I know who I am. I didn't do anything.''

Cubs' Espstein: accused Marmol "may in fact be a victim"

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MESA, Ariz. -- Cubs president Theo Epstein continued to strongly support closer Carlos Marmol amid a civil suit in the Dominican Republic alleging a domestic assault incident in October.

Epstein also said the club had no knowledge of the allegations when it came close to trading Marmol to the Los Angeles Angels in November. ``We became aware of it when there became media reports [in the past two weeks],'' he said.

On Friday, the case against Marmol was sent to the high court in the Dominican. Marmol's attorneys, meanwhile, have filed a countersuit claiming extortion and blackmail by the 24-year-old accuser.

Marmol was expected to arrive in Phoenix Sunday night.

Epstein said that after investigating, the team believes in Marmol's innocence.

``I think it's the organization's responsibility to take all accusations of that nature very seriously. Any incident like that, especially if it involves a woman, you have to take it extremely seriously,'' he said. ``So it was our decision to look into it a little bit. We don't have necessarily all the information; obviously, we weren't there. But every piece of information that we were able to gather backs up Carlos' story that he's guilty of no wrongdoing whatsoever and may in fact be a victim here if this case continues to be pursued like this.

``All we can do is evaluate it on the merits, and so far what we've seen backs Carlos' story, and we're going to continue to support him,'' Epstein added. ``And we expect this matter will be behind us shortly, based on the way it's proceeding in the Dominican courts.''

Cubs' Epstein on Schilling, PED's, new HGH testing

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Cubs president Theo Epstein still can't explain Curt Schilling's contention that a Red Sox "employee" encouraged him to take performance enhancing drugs to help extend his career, but five years later it remains the only time a player has mentioned the subject to him in 10 years running baseball operations in Boston and Chicago, Epstein said Sunday.

``It's the only time in my career where a player mentioned performance enhancing drugs to me,'' Epstein said Sunday in his first public comments since Schilling made the incident public for the first time last week during a radio interview.

``I immediately reported it to major league baseball,'' Epstein said, reiterating what MLB and current Red Sox officials have said in the aftermath of Schilling's on-air comments. ``The club did its own investigation. Major league baseball did a very thorough investigation. ... They had a lot of conviction about their conclusion that their was no wrongdoing and therefore no discipline of the individual in question.''

Epstein wouldn't confirm reports that the employee Schilling named was former Red Sox physical therapist Mike Reinold, who left the team after last season.

``I can only say that this individual was thoroughly investigated and came out with his reputation very much intact,'' Epstein said. ``Because of this investigation, the individual in question probably has been as thoroughly vetted as anyone in a big league clubhouse and came out extremely clean. So this incident should not be seen as an attack on his integrity.''

The subject of performance enhancing drugs in baseball has been spotlighted again this winter with reports linking several big-name players to an alleged provider in South Florida and with revisions to MLB's testing program that includes HGH testing for the first time this year.

``It's a big step, and I applaud them for it,'' Epstein said. ``Obviously, the entire industry has to be very vigilant. We've taken some blows this off-season and the only way to continue to earn the respect and faith of our fans back is to try to stay on top of it.''

Say it ain't so: Campy cut from Cubs' roster

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The love affair between Cubs fans and popular outfielder Tony Campana is headed for the rocks just in time for Valentine's Day.

The Cubs today announced last year's team stolen base leader has been designated for assignment to make room on the roster for newly signed outfielder Scott Hairston (two years, $5 million).

That gives the Cubs 10 days to trade or waive Campana, the clear fan favorite during last month's Cubs Convention but a player whose one great tool - speed - went underutilized because of a persistent inability to reach base. His only chance of sticking with the club is if he's unable to be traded and clears waivers.

``It was a difficult call for us,'' said team president Theo Epstein, whose front office took almost two weeks to make a roster move for Hairston after agreeing to terms. ``We preferred not to take a pitcher off at this juncture.

``Obviously, [Campana] is one of the best base runners in the league and could be a weapon for a contending team in a certain role.''

Cubs' Fujikawa ready if Marmol not

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MESA, Ariz. - Cubs' pitchers and catchers don't start official spring training workouts until Tuesday, but the team's newest late-inning relief ace, Kyuji Fujikawa, already has put in three days worth of bullpen work at Fitch Park.

``Yeah, I'm ready,'' he said with a smile -- in English, before his interpreter had a chance to translate.

Meanwhile, $9.8-million closer Carlos Marmol had little reason to say much of anything with a smile on Saturday - much less in the state of Arizona, where he's not expected to arrive until Sunday night.

Already the object of trade efforts early in the offseason, Marmol's status as closer was brought into question again in December when Fujikawa - the former Japanese All-Star closer - was signed to a two-year, $9.5-million deal.

Now he goes to spring training with the cloud of a domestic-abuse allegation dogging him in his native Dominican Republic - the case having been sent to the country's high court on Friday even as team officials put faith in his innocence and as his lawyers filed counterclaims of extortion and blackmail by the alleged victim.

Hard as it is to believe, Fujikawa claims he hasn't heard about Marmol's widely reported issues back home - allowing his interpretor, Ryo Shinkawa, to deliver that answer.

Still, it's almost impossible to think Fujikawa hasn't considered the likelihood of becoming the Cubs' closer in the short term, even after Cubs brass repeatedly insisted Marmol's their ninth-inning guy.

Fujikawa, 32, has averaged 34 saves the past six seasons for the Hanshin Tigers, with more than 12 strikeouts per nine innings and a WHIP under .900.

``The decision's not up to myself but the coaches,'' he said through Shinkawa. ``My job is to get outs. As I do that I think I'll try to make it a tougher decision for the coaches.''

To that end, Fujikawa already has made the commitment not only to arrive in Mesa a week early but also to skip the World Baseball Classic after having pitched for Japan's two-time champion in each of the first two WBCs - though he says that started as a request by the Cubs.

He also has made the decision to leave his family in Japan as he plays out his first American spring training over the next two months.

``To make the successful transition I need to concentrate on baseball,'' said Fujikawa, who has Darwin Barney and David DeJesus to his immediate left and right in the clubhouse to also help.

``Nice guys,'' he says, in English, of the pair.

The earliest days of the transition have gone well so far, he says, maybe in small part because of that ability to pick up at least some English on his own, especially as it relates to dealing with his new pitching coach, Chris Bosio.

``He's nice, but not a lot of Japanese words yet,'' Fujikawa says through Shinkawa.

He shouldn't count on many from his new manager, Dale Sveum, either.

Fujikawa says he's grateful for a new rule this year that allows interpreters to go to the mound with coaches and managers during games. ``It should definitely help,'' he said.

No word yet from Sveum on whether he'll have Shinkawa handle any pitching changes on his own.

``Good idea,'' Fujikawa says in English, smiling. ``Good idea.''

Baez tops Cubs' non-roster list for spring training

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The Cubs' top prospect, shortstop Javier Baez - who's expected to open the season at Class A Daytona - headlines a group of 22 non-roster players invited to spring training.

The club released the list Friday. Pitchers and catchers report just over a week from now, with first workouts scheduled Feb. 12.

Among the 11 non-roster pitchers on the list are two who spent time in the majors with the Cubs last year, right-handers Casey Coleman and Blake Parker, and veteran Japanese free agent Hisanori Takahashi, who made 51 appearances last year for the Angels and Pirates.

The eight other pitchers invited: right-handers Drew Carpenter, Jaye Chapman, Dayan Diaz, Jensen Lewis, Barret Loux, Zach Putnam, Nick Struck and Cory Wade.

Among the three non-roster catchers is second-year invite Michael Brenly, son of former Cubs broadcaster Bob Brenly. Catchers J.C. Boscan and Rafael Lopez also were invited.

Four other infielders join Baez on the non-roster list, including former White Sox infielder/outfielder Brent Lillibridge (along with Alberto Gonzalez, Edwin Maysonet and Brad Nelson).

Three outfielders round out the list: Brian Bogusevic, Johermyn Chavez and Darnell McDonald.

First full-squad workouts are Feb. 17.

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