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

March 2013 Archives

Cubs-Pirates Opening Day lineups

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CUBS

CF David DeJesus
SS Starlin Castro
1B Anthony Rizzo
LF Alfonso Soriano
RF Nate Schierholtz
C Welington Castillo
3B Luis Valbuena
2B Brent Lillibridge
RHP Jeff Samardzija


PIRATES

LF Starling Marte
RF Garrett Jones
CF Andrew McCutchen
3B Pedro Alvarez
1B Gaby Sanchez
2B Neil Walker
C Russell Martin
SS Clint Barmes
RHP A.J. Burnett

Cubs' Samardzija ready to get it started

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PITTSBURGH - Opening Day is a return to the scene of the crime, as far as Jeff Samardzija is concerned.

The place he had perhaps his two most dominant starts last season. The place where his best season - his prove-it season - was abruptly stopped short when he reached a long-planned innings limit.

A complete-game shutdown of the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sept. 8 was the end of what might yet turn into a tell-tale individual season for the Cubs in this organizational rebuilding - but it came at a time Samardzija never felt stronger and when he had inched close enough to smell the magic 200-innings mark.

"That was probably the main gripe I had with being shut down," said the power-pitching right-hander who makes his first Opening Day start Monday at PNC Park, hoping to pick up where he left off last year.

"You're that far, and you want to take it and see how far you can go with it,'' he said. "But that's for another time, I guess."

That time is now.

Samardzija, 28, takes the hopes for a strong start for his team and the expectations of a 200-inning workload into his second season as a big-league starter, this time with no innings restrictions, no kid-glove treatment - and, as far as he's concerned, no holds barred.

"You work hard in the off-season and you work hard in spring training, and this is the date you circle on your calendar," he said. "It's just a relief that it's finally here.

"I'm excited to be on regular rest all year this year, instead of getting a day here, a day there, with off days."

And maybe a little more excited about the reward for the work, and the faith of management, that the opening assignment represents.

"Everyone gets a little nervous," he said. "I'm expecting the anxiety to be a little more in the direction of excitement than anything else. ... I want to take my time understanding that the emotions and the all the energy's going to come naturally just from the atmosphere. So I don't need to get really too excited before the game - and just try to stay level-headed going into it."

As the Cubs look at the next few years, Samardzija might be the key - the homegrown power pitcher capable of being a frontline starter for an organization whose next projected impact pitcher is probably starting the season in Class A ball this year.

It's why they talked long-term extension with Samardzija in the off-season. But Samardzija's big-stage confidence and big-time athletic pedigree has him thinking of bigger things than a few years of security that comes with a first-offer hometown discount.

He won't use words like Cy Young, but this is a guy who believes he's on his way to becoming one of the top pitchers in the game. He also produced a second half last year that seemed to back him up, until management said he was done.

Whether he has any small doubts left about his ability to make 32 starts and throw 200 innings for the first time in his career, he's not showing them.

"There's no doubt in my mind," manager Dale Sveum said. "He's just too durable. He's got the body to do it. He's got the work ethic to do it. He finished strong. He only needed 30 more innings to get to 200 last year, and he was as strong as anybody in the game at that time."

But like the Washington Nationals with young Stephen Strasburg, there was no bending when it came to shutting down Samardzija at the prescribed workload level.

Or was there?

"Obviously, we would have changed that plan if we were in a pennant race," Sveum said.

That ship had long sailed by Sept. 8.

But with the annual optimism that comes with every Opening Day, and with the promise of a season for Samardzija free of restrictions, the big right-hander plans to have something to say about the kind of September the Cubs have this time around.

"When [injured Matt] Garza and those guys come back, and they're in the rotation right behind [me] and throwing in the same series as me and Edwin [Jackson], that's going to be a ton of fun," Samardzija said. "I'm excited for that. It's a long season, and we need to take care of business right now with the guys that are healthy and put is in a situation where when we get those guys back we're ready to go and really make a run through the summer."

Cubs' Clevenger earns third degree

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MESA, Ariz. - Finally.

In the third game he got sent out to man third base, catcher Steve Clevenger showed he might just be able to handle the spot if needed - finally getting a couple of grounders hit his way Wednesday night against Kansas City, including a rocket by catcher Salvador Perez in the sixth.

He started a double play on the more routine grounder in the fourth and smothered Perez's shot, then made a strong throw for third out to strand a runner at third.

"That was kind of fun," said Clevenger, who has earned the final bench spot, pending a possible last-minute waiver claim. "You sit there and wonder when you don't get any ground balls, `Can I really do it?' Then you get a couple grounders and you get comfortable out there."

He doesn't need to get too comfortable.

"We're not going to ask him to set the world on fire or play there every day or anything like that," manager Dale Sveum said, "but in certain situations that might come up to get his bat in the lineup or double switch, [he might play third]."

Sveum was just happy to see Clevenger finally get a chance to field the position and prove he can he used there. Mostly, he'll be a lefty pinch-hitter who also gives the Cubs the luxury of using backup, switch-hitting catcher Dioner Navarro in a bigger role.

And he's Anthony Rizzo's backup at first, where he played most of Thursday's game.


Cubs' Sveum on closer Marmol: "No worries"

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MESA, Ariz. -- Despite Carlos Marmol's inglorious meltdown just six days before the season opener Tuesday night, manager Dale Sveum said he's not worried about his closer heading into the season.

Marmol, who also struggled with two walks and a hit batter in his previous outing, failed to retire any of six batters he faced Tuesday against Cincinnati, allowing four hits and a walk, with one runner reaching on an error. All six eventually scored. He had a 1.86 ERA in 10 outings this spring before that.

"He's been throwing strikes with his fastball and [Tuesday} he got hit a little bit, but he still threw strikes and he's doing a pretty good job," Sveum said. "He had four outings in a row where I think the most pitches he threw was 12. There's no worries there."

Sveum pointed to what Marmol did over the second half of last season (1.52 ERA 12 of 13 in save chances) and discounted spring training numbers.

"Obviously, anybody can lose their job any time during the season, but you don't get caught up in what's going on in spring training," he said. "Just like you don't worry about one of your core hitters struggling in spring training, because Opening Day is just a whole 'nother animal to where the adrenaline and focus and everything gets tremendously better than it does sometimes in spring training.''

Meanwhile, former Japanese All-Star closer Kyuji Fujikawa is capable of backing up Marmol, Sveum said.

"If Marmol throws three days in a row or something, you've got a viable candidate to close that fourth game if Marmol has to be down," Sveum said. "You're dealing with a guy that's done it many, many times before, with th stuff and the makeup to be able to do it."

Pitcher Jeff Samardzija talks about what kind of nerves he'll have as the Cubs' Opening Day starter.

Cubs' Baker relieved he's not a 5-percenter

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MESA, Ariz. -- When the Cubs signed injured pitcher Scott Baker last fall, team president Theo Epstein touted the "95-percent" success rate of Tommy John surgery as a big reason the $5.5 million risk was worth taking.

But not even Baker could keep from wondering if he was a unfortunate 5-percenter while he waited for a week to see the team orthopedist after his elbow flared up during a spring training start.

"You can tell yourself as much as you want to that it's not the case," he said Monday morning. "And you can believe whatever you want. But until you sit there and Dr. [Stephen Gryzlo] and Dr. [David] Altcheck both confirm that that's not the case ... it makes you feel pretty good for sure."

The surgeons determined Sunday that Baker's setback was caused by a muscle strain in the elbow and not from any damage done to the re-fitted tendon.

Baker, who underwent the reconstructive surgery April 17 and missed all season, says there's "no doubt" in his mind he'll return to the mound this season to help the team.

But with his throwing shut down for a month, a best-case scenario now looks like mid-season instead of the mid-April return he and the team originally forecasted.

"It is disappointing," Baker said. "For one, I feel like I've sat out enough. I don't want to sit out any more than I've already had to. It's going to be at least a month more than we were originally anticipating. It's tough.

"But I've come this far. I'm not about to give up or give in. I'm just going to continue to try to get ready to pitch at whatever point during the season that is."

Setback for Cubs' Baker to cost him half the season

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. - Cubs right-hander Scott Baker likely will miss at least the first half of the season after an exam on his rebuilt pitching elbow determined he suffered a muscle strain while pitching in his first official spring training game March 17.

The team said Baker won't start throwing a ball again for another month. A rehab program at that point would take at least another two months to prepare him for a major-league game.

Until suffering the setback, Baker was expected to join the Cubs' rotation in mid-April - close to the one-year anniversary of his Tommy John surgery.

``It's bad news," manager Dale Sveum said. "He's somebody you were obviously counting on to be there whenever it was going to be - mid-April or May. So that's bad news whenever you lose a little bit of depth, but it's just going to take a little bit longer."

Baker, who had not had a setback during his rehab process until that game a week ago, signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal with the Cubs last fall. The Cubs said at the time they looked at Baker as a potential candidate for a longer-term contract, depending on his recovery and results this year.

"This is obviously a setback, but not where he won't be able to pitch this season,'' Sveum said.

"We do have the luxury with the depth that we have," he added.

Sveum has left-hander Travis Wood and right-hander Carlos Villanueva in his opening rotation with Baker and Matt Garza (lat strain) opening on the disabled list.

They join Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson and Scott Feldman.


NOTES

--Outfielder Dave Sappelt, who was hit on the neck with a throw while running the bases Saturday, is expected to miss two to three days because of the bruise.

--The Cubs on Sunday optioned reliever Rafael Dolis to Class AAA Iowa, leaving three pitchers left for the final bullpen spot: left-hander Hisanori Takahashi and right-handers Cory Wade and Zach Putnam.


MESA, Ariz. - Right-hander Scott Baker said his surgically repaired elbow felt "much better" six days after suffering a setback during his lone Cactus League start this spring, giving him at least some optimism on the eve of Sunday's exam by the team orthopedist.

Baker, who has been shut down indefinitely, had an MRI that revealed enough potential problems in the reconstructed elbow to prompt Dr. Stephen Gryzlo to fly from Chicago for a personal exam before the club was willing to say what the medical staff saw on the MRI or suggest a prognosis.

"It's hard not to feel OK about [Sunday's exam] because I am feeling much better," Baker said Saturday morning. "Obviously, we're doing something right as far as treatment and the medications are obviously helping. And there's nothing wrong with taking it easy, either. With that combination, it feels a lot better, so we'll just see what the doc says."

MESA, Ariz. - A year after Cub fans moaned and groaned about the new front office trading stud lefty reliever Sean Marshall to Cincinnati for a couple of guys who couldn't stick with the big-league club, Travis Wood and Dave Sappelt could be rewriting the history of that deal.

"That was the plan," said Sappelt, who makes the club as the fifth outfielder six months after an impressive monthlong performance in his Cubs debut last September. "I was young. I was always putting up numbers, playing defense. The capabilities were there.

"And I think Wood has the stuff, too. He always dominated coming up in the minors. He used to throw 97, believe it or not."

The left-handed Wood, more of a guy who relies on movement and location now, is in the Cubs' opening rotation.

A lefty starter and a young, versatile outfielder with the chance to hit his way into more playing time, in exchange for a late-inning reliever who would have been especially expensive to keep for a non-contender?

"I think it could turn out to be a good trade," Sappelt said. "I think it already is a good trade, and I'll get to face Marshall a lot, so we'll see."

Manager Dale Sveum, a fan of Sappelt's hitting since last season, lauded Wood's development just since his rough spring a year ago into a valuable starter.

"It's turning out pretty good right now," Sveum said of the trade, "with the addition of Sappelt, who has obviously proved to us that he can hit major league pitching and play defense - and a capable guy that if something did happen, I think he could play every day and contribute that way, too."

MESA, Ariz. -- When it comes to looking for outside help via waivers or players released late in spring training, anybody the Cubs might consider will have to beat out Steve Clevenger for that last bench spot.

Don't count on recently released Bill Hall (Angels) or Chone Figgins (Marlins) doing that. Both struggled mightily the last two seasons offensively, and Hall has been sidelined most of the month with calf and quad injuries.

"Chone figgins would be one that would be interesting," said manager Dale Sveum, who knows Hall better from their days together in Milwaukee but didn't say anything about Hall when asked about both. "[Figgins] switch hits, he can play the outfield, he can run, he can play the infield, he can do a lot of things that way. That's kind of more of a super utility guy.

"But you're also looking for a left-handed bat that can hit the ball out of the ballpark, too. That would be the perfect scenario - some left-handed bat that has some versatility that can hit the ball out of the ballpark."

In other words, Clevenger. He has performed well as a pinch-hitter both last season and this spring, has power and can play some first base and possibly third or second in a pinch. And Sveum loves the idea of having a third catcher on the roster who would allow him to use switch-hitting backup Dioner Navarro more freely off the bench.

Infielder Alberto Gonzalez is the only other in-house option left on the spring roster, but Sveum clearly is leaning toward Clevenger, barring an acquisition that bumps him off the opening roster.

"We're in no panic,'' Sveum said. "We've got a pretty decent situation."

Ex-Cub Ramirez: Cubs "paying the price" for rebuilding

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MARYVALE, Ariz. - Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez says he has no hard feelings about the way he left the Cubs.

Of course, that's easy for him to say considering he's in the middle of a last laugh on that one - with the Cubs' third base position breaking out again into the open sore it had been for decades until Ramirez took over in 2003.

Getting ready for his second season with the Cubs' division rivals, the guy who thought he would stay in Chicago until Jim Hendry was fired as general manager in the summer of 2011 is over the whole show-them-what-they're-missing thing.

"I did it last year. That's enough," he said, smiling. "Nah, I just try to do my job. I don't' try to show anybody what kind of player I am. All you've got to do is look at my career, and that'll tell you what kind of player I have been for a long time."

For all his critics in Chicago, Brewers management and teammates raved about Ramirez as a veteran presence and leader last season, and he delivered a .300 season that included a league-leading 50 doubles, 27 homers, 105 RBIs and .901 OPS - and a top-10 finish in MVP voting.

The Cubs? Not so much. Especially at the position that has historically dogged the franchise for decades at a time.

Before Ramirez got to Chicago from Pittsburgh in one of the more lopsided trades of the last 20 years, the Cubs were going on 30 years with a revolving door at the position following Ron Santo.

As they enter their second season without him, the position is a wide-open door, with .224-hitting converted second baseman Luis Valbuena set to open the season as the starter and disappointing Ian Stewart set to open the season on the DL, where he finished last season.

Stewart has been such a non-factor since being acquired from Colorado for Tyler Colvin and D.J. LeMahieu that Ramirez said Friday, "I didn't realize he was there. ... Maybe because he hasn't played."

Ramirez said he didn't imagine the Cubs would have nearly the trouble filling the position that they have.

"No, because there's a lot of good players out there," he said. "But they aren't trying to get good players. [Kevin] Youkilis was a free agent. They didn't go after him.''

But Youkilis got $12 million from the New York Yankees for this season, far more than the Cubs were willing to pay.

"I can understand that, because they're not ready to win right now," Ramirez said. "They've got to start over."

That's why he's not there anymore. The $36 million he got from the Brewers for three years wasn't in Cubs president Theo Epstein's rebuilding vision.

"It would have made no sense for them to re-sign me long-term," Ramirez, 34, said. "They're doing what they have to do. They're going young. And they're paying the price. They lost 100 games last year, and that's what happens when you're trying to rebuild.

"But you've got to start over at some point. Obviously, what we were doing wasn't working."

Cubs' Stewart (quad) to open on DL

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MESA, Ariz. - In what may have seemed inevitable for at least the last few days, the Cubs on Tuesday morning said third baseman Ian Stewart will open the season on the disabled list.

The announcement came after MRI results on his injured quad showed a "pocket of fluid" remaining in the area he first injured running out a double Feb. 21 during an intrasquad game.

Stewart suffered a setback with the quad the first day he returned to action, in a minor-league game Thursday in which he batted five times.

"There was a couple check swings where I felt that muscle pull,'' he said.

"I just know there's still pain there,'' he added. "It's been frustrating. Just because I could do pretty much everything somewhat pain-free but without being able to run. I know what it's like to play through pain. And that's what's hard about this, that I can't get through that pain and play with it, because it's just too much."

The Stewart decision means Luis Valbuena is the Cubs' Opening Day third baseman and will get at least most of the starts until Stewart returns.

Right-handed hitting Brent Lillibridge - who now is assured of making the roster, Sveum said - could share time with Valbuena at third because he hits left-handers especially well, Sveum said.

The decision also means the Cubs officially have chosen to swallow the full $2 million of Stewart's deal instead of taking the discount option of releasing him before rosters are set and owing him only $500,000.


Cubs' Baker shut down after setback with elbow

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MESA, Ariz. - Cubs pitcher Scott Baker, who missed all of last season following Tommy John surgery, has been shut down after suffering a "setback" in his rehab Sunday.

Baker, who experienced soreness the morning after that brief start, had another MRI on the surgically repaired elbow on Monday, and results showed enough potential problems in the area to prompt a consultation with the team doctor this weekend.

"It's just too soon to really know,'' manager Dale Sveum said, "until after he sees the doctor and we get a little better showing of what's going on and where to move forward."

Team officials said the MRI results were not conclusive and held out hope that it's not a serious setback.

"It's more disappointing for him, for a guy that's worked that hard and did everything," Sveum said, "and really did nothing to warrant something like this, being shut down. Hopefully, it's not that big a deal and he can continue [soon]. But it's just a wait-and-see thing right now."

Baker recorded only one out in Sunday's start against the Oakland Athletics, his first official game action since last spring. He gave up three runs on two walks and three hits, including a three-run home run.

Until then, he had experienced no issues with the elbow since starting rehab work after the April 17 surgery.

He and the team were targeting a mid-April regular-season debut.

Baker, a former 15-game winner with the Minnesota Twins, signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal as a free agent last fall.

Cubs' Baker sent for MRI

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PEORIA, Ariz. - Already leading the league in MRI's this spring, the Cubs sent pitcher Scott Baker out for another one Monday after the Tommy John surgery graduate showed up in camp with soreness in his elbow the day after making his Cactus League debut this spring.

The Cubs consider it a precautionary move and plan to keep him on his pitching schedule if the MRI is clean and Baker feels well enough Tuesday to do his between-starts work.

Baker struggled to get one out in a long first inning before hitting his pitch limit Sunday.

He has performed well in rehab work and bullpen work all spring without anything more than soreness typically associated with Tommy John rehab and rebuilding strength.

MRI results are expected Tuesday.

Baker, a former 15-game winner for Minnesota who signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal as a free agent last fall, missed all of last season because of the surgery.

Cubs' Stewart facing DL after latest quad delay

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LAS VEGAS - Ian Stewart's on-again, off-again spring is off again - and it probably means the third baseman's off the Opening Day roster.

"I don't know if he's got enough time," manager Dale Sveum said Sunday as Stewart took a third day off because of continued quad soreness and was scheduled for another MRI on the injured area Monday. "It'll be interesting."

Stewart strained the quad running out a double in his first at-bats of the spring, in the Cubs' Feb. 21 intrasquad game, and didn't play again until batting five times as a DH in a minor-league game Thursday. He's been sidelined since.

The Cubs can save $1.5 million of Stewart's $2 million contract if he's cut before the April 1 opener, but he'll more likely open on the disabled list and get an extended shot at returning to the field.

Meanwhile, Stewart's loss could be catcher Steve Clevenger's gain. The Cubs don't plan to carry a third catcher, but the versatility of projected utility man Brent Lillibridge and Stewart-replacement Luis Valbuena gives the Cubs the luxury of considering taking Clevenger's capable lefty bat.

"Clevenger's obviously a guy that would be interesting," said Sveum, who also suggested the Cubs will more closely watch the waiver wire in the next two weeks for backup fits. "It's nice to have a hitter that's been as hot as [Clevenger] is. Then you can pinch-run for your catcher. It's actually an interesting spot."

Clevenger can also play some corner infield and possibly some second base and/or even the outfield.

Rough debut for Cubs' Baker

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MESA, Ariz. -- Cubs right-hander Scott Baker faced only six batters in his anticipated Cactus League debut against the Oakland Athletics on Sunday - recording just one out before running out of pitches.

"Trust me, there was some nerves out there," he said. "I haven't done it in a while."

Baker, who is weeks behind the other starters in camp as he continues a cautious and steady rehab since Tommy John surgery last year, allowed three runs on Chris Young's three-run homer three batters into the game.

He also gave up two singles and two walks.

"The results are one thing, but getting back out there and pitching in front of fans is something I hadn't done yet," he said. "It was exciting to get out there and do that today. I feel like I made some decent pitches. Occasionally, I got a little jumpy and left the ball up a little bit. ...

"I was throwing all of my pitches today. Did I locate as well as I'd like to? No. but that's part of the process, too. It's another step."

Baker, who missed all of last season because of the elbow, was pitching in his first official spring game since last year and still is expected to make his season debut in mid-April.

"Nothing has changed," he said. "I am scheduled to start every fifth day, and it is up to the medical staff and coaching staff to make those decisions."

He was signed as a free agent to a one-year, $5.5 million deal in the fall.

WBC "great experience" for Cubs' Rizzo

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(Sun-Times correspondent Jason Skoda provided the following Anthony Rizzo comments from Arizona, where he and a few other reporters talked to Rizzo on Saturday when he returned from Italy's surprising run into the second round of the World Baseball Classic):


MESA, Ariz. -- First baseman Anthony Rizzo, who returned Saturday from Team Italy's run in the WBC, said it was "bittersweet" to be back now, because of the disappointing elimination Wednesday, but that he values the experience as he prepares for the Cubs' season.

"It was unexplainable and a lot of fun, especially with the group of guys and the coaching staff we had," he said. "We all had a great time and there were no egos. You really had to slow the game down as much as possible. Every single pitch, every inning, and later on the at-bats mean even more. It is really about slowing the game down a little more and focusing.

"It is something I wouldn't be able to get here, or even in the regular season. If you lose a game, you still play tomorrow, where this was like a playoff atmosphere where if you lose you're done."

Rizzo said he's ready to shift the intensity to his focus on getting ready for his first Opening Day as a big leaguer - but he doesn't figure he'll ever forget the Team Italy experience.

He's even thinking about making plans for a trip to Italy to see some of his WBC teammates.

"I figure I'll go and see the country first and get away from the baseball and see some of the guys and see what their hometowns are about and have some good food," he said. "They were so nice to all of us and they were so excited to be there. I think that's why the team did well. No one was selfish. We had fun and no one had egos."

He said it's too early to talk about the 2017 WBC. He might be invited to be part of the United States roster by then.

"It was a great experience this year," he said. "No one expected us to do well. The competition we played was way better than the talent on our team, but that's baseball. ... We gave everyone a run for their money."


MESA, Ariz. -- The Cubs expect top outfield prospect Albert Almora to make a full recovery from the broken hamate bone in his left hand he suffered in a minor-league spring game Thursday, even as they prepare for him to miss about a third of the season.

Almora was scheduled to fly to Chicago to have minor surgery in the next few days to remove the broken hook of the hamate. He's expected to be sidelined three to four weeks before being allowed to resume baseball activity and remain in the disabled list until late May.

"Obviously, it's not a career problem, more of a pain-in-the-butt type thing that happens to quite a few hitters over the history of the game,'' manager Dale Sveum said. "It's just that little bone that doesn't mean anything or you don't need.

"It'll cost him eight weeks before he gets in a game. The good thing is it's one of those things you take out and are done with it. ...It's a nice injury to be done with."

The injury is often caused by contact with the knob of the bat on swings. Baltimore's Nick Markakis and San Francisco's Pablo Sandoval are among the major league palyers who have suffered the injury in recent years.

"He just took a swing on two strikes, and I guess something happened," said Class A teammate Dan Vogelbach, who was nearby when Almora was hurt. "It was just a swing. He just fouled it back. ... A couple guys [in the Cubs' system] got it last year.

"It's just unlucky. It just happened to happen to him. But he'll come back better than ever. He'll be ready. He's a good guy. He works hard, and he's a great teammate."

Cubs 3B Stewart (quad) confident he'll be ready for opener

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MESA, Ariz. - Cubs third baseman Ian Stewart said he was "nervous" when he headed to the minor-league side of camp Thursday to play in his first game since a Feb. 21 intrasquad game.

But by Friday morning he had an opposite-field home run to his credit, a renewed confidence in his surgically repaired left wrist and - most importantly - faith that the quad strain that cost him three weeks won't prevent him from being ready for the season opener.

"I felt really good. I was very surprised," said Stewart, who homered and singled in five at-bats and then took Friday off for treatment and recuperation. "I was a little nervous actually going down there. I'm like, `I don't want to do that.' But my timing felt great. I was taking good pitches that were close, laying off the breaking balls and changeups that were in the dirt. I just felt really good."

Stewart said he expects to return to Fitch Park to load up on a half-dozen or more at-bats in another minor-league game Saturday and hopes to play in his first big-league spring game next week.

He said he's not sure how much playing time his quad can take right away.

"I was pretty sore after the game, and was a little worried about that, but I came in today and felt really good," he said.

But he seems to feel certain he has enough time to get ready for April 1 opener.

"I do. I feel like there is [enough time],'' he said. "I was just counting the days the other day - 16, 17 days till Opening Day. Typically, that's not what you'd want, but I think you can make the most of it by being able to go down into minor league games and get eight at-bats."

If he's not ready, Luis Valbuena is poised and eager to take the job. He's had most of the playing time at third so far this spring and is 8-for-24 with three extra-base hits and three walks.

Cubs' Junior Lake out with stress fracture in rib

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MESA, Ariz. - Cubs prospect Junior Lake will miss the rest of camp and the first part of the minor league season after an MRI revealed a stress fracture at the back of his top right rib, the club said Wednesday.

Lake, a shortstop making the conversion to third base, had been sidelined the last several days with what originally was believed to be a sore shoulder.

Lake was 7-for-23 this spring with a homer, triple and eight strikeouts.

Manager Dale Sveum hoped to see more of Lake, especially in the outfield, but saw enough to know how much development the raw, 23-year-old player needs.

"[He has] all the tools,'' Sveum said. "Swinging the bat, he's obviously got a lot to learn. He's a very premeditated swinger. He's not getting good pitches to hit. He's swinging at arm action a lot. And he's a guy with a lot of bat speed that doesn't have to be a premeditated swinger.

"It's a nice player to have, but there's still development there."

Cubs' Garza encouraged by progress this week

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MESA, Ariz. -- Cubs right-hander Matt Garza is optimistic he can make his season debut closer to the two-week mark into the season than the four-week mark after the progress he made this week in restarting a throwing program.

Manager Dale Sveum isn't so sure of the timeline but says he's "very encouraged" by the way Garza's lat injury has responded this week.

"We'll find out a little bit more [later Wednesday], but he's doing really well to where it's pretty much gone it sounds like," Sveum said.

Garza, who has been sidelined since Feb. 17 with a left lat strain, played catch back-to-back days Sunday and Monday, and said he felt better than expected Tuesday. He was scheduled to throw again Wednesday - including "pushing" it to about 60 feet for the final 10 throws of the session.

"I was expecting to be real, real sore and maybe have to say I'm going to have to pull back,'' he said. "I was muscular sore but not the old sore. I'm activating muscles. It's good. It's just slow.

"So we'll see."

Until Sunday, Garza had been shut down for the second time this spring after the lat flared up again.

The stress reaction in his elbow that cost him the final two months of last season appears to be long gone, and barring another setback with the lat Garza said he's hopeful to be ready to make a spring game appearance by the end of camp.

"We still have three weeks left, so hopefully I can be ready to make an appearance the last week. If not, then possibly in Houston [March 29 or 30]," he said, "then go out and make a couple [minor-league rehab] starts and be ready."

Sveum is more conservative about the timeline, saying he expects Garza's season debut to come near the end of April or early May.

"But right now, I'm really, really encouraged by how he's doing," Sveum said.


NOTE - Scott Baker, who also will open the season on the disabled list as he returns from Tommy John surgery, is scheduled to make his Cactus League debut Sunday after faring well in a minor-league start Tuesday.

Cubs' Rizzo rides Team Italy wave home to Miami

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MESA, Ariz. - Anthony Rizzo made a surprise appearance at Cubs camp Sunday - the surprise, of course, being that he wasn't back in camp for good.

Instead, he was just stopping by to get some of his stuff for his trip to Miami with the Cinderella team of the World Baseball Classic tournament.

"It's just huge for the country of Italy," said Rizzo, who had a game-winning hit in the ninth inning to shock Mexico and contributed to a trouncing of Canada as Team Italy advanced to the second round of the WBC.

"It's been a lot of fun so far,'' he said. "I expected to be back in camp today, but that's the beauty of this game is that on a given day any given team can win."

Rizzo, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native who hopes someday to represent the U.S. in the WBC, said he's been inspired by the native Italians on the team.

"The joy they have coming to play here and what it means to them has kind of gotten to me, too," he said.

Rizzo said he's heard through his dad about extended family in Italy following his exploits and the team's. "Everyone's insane and happy right now," he said. "So are the guys in the clubhouse. We just want to keep it rolling."

Italy and Team USA both advanced from the Phoenix pool. They join Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in second-round pool play Tuesday through Friday. Two from the pool advance to the tournament semifinals in San Francisco.

Rizzo expects a big turnout from family and friends in the hometown round this week.

"I'm sure it'll be fun," he said. "A couple of my friends said they're going to dress up as the Mario Brothers."


Cubs cut six from big-league camp

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MESA, Ariz. -- The Cubs cut six players from their spring roster Monday, including their 2012 minor league player of the year and pitcher of the year: middle infielder Logan Watkins and right-hander Nick Struck.

Watkins was optioned to Class AAA Iowa, along with three pitchers: right-handers Trey McNutt and Alberto Cabrera, and left-hander Brooks Raley.

Struck, who led the Southern League with 14 wins last year, was reassigned to minor-league camp.

Right-hander Robert Whitenack, a fast-rising prospect until missing parts of the past two seasons returning from Tommy John surgery, was optioned to AA Tennessee.

The cuts leave 53 players in camp with three weeks remaining before the season opener.

MESA, Ariz. - Third baseman Ian Stewart's chances to make the team appear to be narrowing with every day his window of playing opportunity narrows because of a persistent quad injury.

Manager Dale Sveum said Sunday that the quad strain Stewart suffered Feb. 21 in an intrasquad game is still bothering him enough that his return to the lineup has been pushed back until possibly next week.

Stewart and prospect Josh Vitters have nearly identical injuries and are on a similar timeline, running together daily under supervision of trainers.

"They're still feeling stiffness when they're running at 80 percent," Sveum said. "So hopefully, maybe, this weekend. But it seems to be getting pushed back every day."

The club was originally targeting Friday for Stewart's return, which would give Stewart a small enough window of playing time that Sveum referred to it as a "cram session" of at-bats for making the club.

Sunday Sveum said, "It's getting more crammy."

Opening the season on the disabled list is not among the options the Cubs are considering as they decide whether to commit to paying Stewart's full $2 million contract by putting him on the opening roster or pay just $500,000 by releasing him before that.

Sveum-favorite Luis Valbuena is considered a strong defensive option to take over the position, as he did when Stewart was injured last year. And Valbuena is having an especially strong spring offensively.


OTHER INJURY NOTES

--Prospect Junior Lake was scratched from Sunday's lineup after showing up with a sore throwing shoulder. He's day to day.

--Right-hander Matt Garza was to have his recovering left lat evaluated today to determine if he's able to restart a throwing program in the next day or two. He's expected to miss the first month of the season.

--Shortstop Starlin Castro (hamstring) and utility man Brent Lillibridge (groin) both look ready to play, Sveum said, and are scheduled to return to the lineup Wednesday following Tuesday's scheduled off day.

MESA, Ariz. - Cubs manager Dale Sveum says they're still reviewing the video records to determine just how many guys in the clubhouse owe Anthony Rizzo's cancer charity a $500 check for doubting Team Italy's chances to win a game in the World Baseball Classic.

But Italy's shocking success in the WBC could benefit Rizzo, and maybe the Cubs, a lot more than that once the season starts.

As Rizzo prepares for his first full season in the majors, it's hard to discount the value of the far more competitive, intense at-bats that he's getting in the WBC, compared to spring training at-bats.

"That's what I told him when he talked to me about going," Sveum said. " 'You're going to be part of something that'll be a playoff-type atmosphere when you're playing in games, and I think it's an experience you can't ever pass up.'

"Any experience like that is always going to be beneficial when you're in a season, in the playoffs, or anything. You've gone through some intensity that you don't go through in regular games in spring training."

With Italy's upsets of Mexico and Canada in pool play in Phoenix, that experience got extended for another week, giving Rizzo a trip to Miami for the second round - and a chance for family and friends near his home in South Florida to see him play.

"Everyone's pretty excited for it," said Rizzo as he left Cubs camp for the tournament, adding that only his dad was able to make the Phoenix part of the tourney. "If we - WHEN we - make it to the second round, it's in Miami, so maybe there's a chance for everyone to be there for that."

Cub trade rumors: It's a Way of Life

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MESA, Ariz. -- Alfonso Soriano's name came up last month when New York Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson got hurt. Carlos Marmol's name came up last week in an unfounded media report. And pundits already are speculating that the Red Sox could be in the market for a DH (read: Soriano) with David Ortiz's injured Achilles.

"Yeah, it's going to continue,'' Cubs manager Dale Sveum said of trade rumors dogging his suddenly small-market-looking club.

"I'm sure the trade rumors are going to continue whenever somebody gets injured in somebody else's camp and they need that player, especially when it's a big market. So, yeah, you see all that kind of stuff continuing."

Of course, if the Cubs weren't perceived as an early-stage rebuilding team looking to dump "short-term assets" for "long-term assets," the rumors might not arise so automatically or persistently. Or, maybe if they open the season with a couple of months of winning baseball.

"There's no reason even dwelling on how and when it would stop," Sveum said. "That's just part of the media. It's part of the job description, too. There's people that are going to be labeled trade bait, or somebody wants them or they fit that role, so it's just there.

"That's what players have to deal with. That's what organizations have to deal with when that kind of stuff comes up.''


Bada bing! Rizzo, Team Italy go 2-0 in WBC

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MESA, Ariz. -- Cubs and ex-Cubs are having a much more successful run representing Italy in the World Baseball Classic than Chicago in the National League.

Team Italy is the early surprise of the tournament, upsetting Mexico Thursday with a ninth-inning rally in the pool play opener and then trouncing Team Canada 14-4 on Friday in a game called in the eight because of the WBC's "mercy" rule.

Italy plays the United States Saturday, already with a strong chance to advance to the second round in Miami regardless of that result.

Cubs first baseman, who know appears to have extended his leave from the team for at least another week, drove in the tying and go-ahead runs against Mexico with a ninth-inning double in and out of former spring training and AAA teammate Edgar Gonzalez.

It made his cancer research charity several thousands of dollars richer.

"We all said if they won a game we'd give him 500 bucks for his charity," manager Dale Sveum said of the handful of Italia skeptics razzing Rizzo on his way to the tourney. "I wanted to go back and look at the video to make sure we didn't say $500 for every win."

Rizzo was in on the scoring again Friday, and is 2-for-8 with a pair of walks and three RBIs in the two games.

Longtime Cubs farmhand Alex Maestri earned the victory over Canada. And even an almost-Cub - reliever Jason Grilli, who turned down a free agent offer from the Cubs this winter - earned the save Thursday.

Does Sveum regret giving Rizzo the OK to play in the tournament now that it likes he'll lose his first baseman for at least another week of camp - along with that $500?

"No. He'd still be playing anyway,'' Sveum said. "You don't get to have that feeling he got [Thursday] to be that big an underdog and to win a game like that.

``He said his second baseman said, `Man, I'm going to have a heart attack out here.' "


MESA, Ariz. - Cubs' starting pitcher Matt Garza will open the season on the disabled list, the team said Sunday, after experiencing a setback while coming back from a left lat strain suffered Feb. 17.

One day after saying his throwing session Saturday went well, the team said Sunday it didn't go so well after all, and the right-hander will be shut down again for about another week.

That could sideline him for the first month of the season, manager Dale Sveum said.

"I don't think it's that bad," Sveum said. "It's just not ready to throw a baseball yet. But it's not torn. ... It didn't get worse. He's just not ready to step up any extra intensity throwing."

Garza played catch from 60 feet Thursday in his first throwing session since the injury, and increased the intensity some Saturday when he felt the lat tug.

The immediate result of the flareup is that the Cubs' opening rotation is set a full four weeks before the season starts.

It also opened the door for Sveum to make an early announcement of his Opening Day starter - Jeff Samardzija - a choice he admitted he'd already settled on.

Right-hander Scott Baker, who missed all of last season because of Tommy John surgery and is building up more slowly than other pitchers in camp, already was to open the season on the DL.

That means Carlos Villanueva and Travis Wood both make the opening rotation, Sveum said.

They join Samardzija, Edwin Jackson and Scott Feldman.

"That's the nice thing about he depth that we bring in, to be able to fill those two spots,'' Sveum said. "We pretty much knew Baker was going to be in the middle of April. We weren't quite sure about how the elbow was going to respond with Garza, and obvioualy that was going really well.

"But now we have this minor setback."

Garza missed the last nine weeks of the season in 2012 because of a "stress reaction" in his pitching elbow. This will be his third trip to the DL in as many seasons with the Cubs.

Morning Gordo: Marm, Fuji, Stew and Clev

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Wondering how the sequestration crisis will impact the Blackhawks in their streak-buster-alert game against Detroit Sunday, as I wait for the Cubs to show at Scottsdale Stadium for this afternoon's game against the world champs.

Three predictions for the season based on first three weeks of camp:


1. The sizeable contingent of Japanese media planning to float between Milwaukee (Norichika Aoki) and Chicago (Kyuji Fujikawa) this season to cover their guys from back home will set up long-term camp at Wrigley when Carlos Marmol blows his first save.

Which could happen by tax day, given the fraught-with-danger series against Milwaukee and San Francisco that opens the home schedule.

Fujikawa, the former Japanese All-Star closer on a two-year contract with the Cubs, has impressed the field staff so far in camp.

Marmol's getting along with the funky, bleach-blond setup man and shrugs off the issue. "They told me I'm the closer,'' he said.

On Fujikawa, he says: "He's a great pitcher. I think we're going to have a good bullpen. He's kind of a cool guy, plays around a lot. Good guy so far."


2. Speaking of good guys, Ian Stewart won't pull off the two-week rampage of OPS hitting and everyday grind to win a roster spot in the maybe two-week window he'll have once he's back from his quad strain.

Not exactly rooting for the Cubs to open the season with Luis Valbuena as the starting third baseman, but it's hard not to see it that way now.

Stewart doesn't seem worried about that possibility. "I figure when I get back, I'll just be playing a lot, but I think that was the plan anyway," he said. "I feel like there is definitely [time]."

Stewart, who has big power when he connects and a good glove at third, has a little compensating to do this spring to overcome the perception that he was too willing to spend the rest of the season at home once he got permission to leave the team to be with his pregnant wife following his midseason wrist injury.

If he doesn't do it in his narrow window of opportunity late this spring, the Cubs have the option of saving $1.5 million of his $2 million contract by releasing him before the opener.

And don't discount the potential incentive for sending a message to the rest of a mostly young team about expectations and accountability in their efforts to supposedly change the "culture" of the team.


3. Catcher Steve Clevenger, Dale Sveum's new super utility player in the making, will drop one of the first three fly balls or popups hit his direction once the season opens.

"I mean, how hard is it to catch a fly ball?" Clevenger said Friday, sealing his fate.

A few items from Cubs camp as I wonder if the former pope, now that he'd retired, might show at Wrigley to see the anointed one from Notre Dame pitch for the Cubs:


SOLER POWER: Big time outfield prospect Jorge Soler's cannon throw from right field to nail Oakland's Josh Reddick trying to go first-to-third Thursday was still part of the morning buzz at Cubs camp Friday.

``Very impressive throw. Accurate, too,'' manager Dale Sveum said. ``All his throws ... That's obviously another added plus to a guy with the tools. A lot of times you might have the arm but it's all over the place. But he's got a pretty good feel of accuracy, throwing one-hoppers and that. ... Even his at-bats. I know he's been striking out a little bit but at least he's seeing pitches. It's not a premeditated-type swing."

Sveum, who didn't see much of Soler beyond video until the 20-year-old got to spring training, already seems to have the powerful, 6-foot-4 projected slugger on his radar.

Until 34 games at the low- and mid-Class A levels last year, Soler hadn't played for a team in about two years, as he waited for residency status after defecting from Cuba.

The lack of pro experience and roughness around the edges is obvious, with six strikeouts in 10 official spring at-bats, to go with a single and a double. But so is the ability the Cubs hope to unlock as quickly as possible - with a towering home run in his first competitive at-bat of the spring, in last week's intrasquad game, and then Thursday's throw.

Soler is likely to start the season at advanced-A Daytona. Depending how well he does in the first half, he could have the opportunity to finish at AA, which for many players is just a phone call away from the majors.

Spring days like Thursday make you wonder how fast he could get to Wrigley.


STARLIN GAZING: All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro is likely to remain sidelined with that tight hamstring at least through the weekend, manager Dale Sveum said Friday morning.

"We'll probably look more towards Monday than this weekend," the manager said. "We've got a lot of games left. We don't have to do anything [too quickly] that way."

Castro left Wednesday's game when his left hamstring tightened while running out a grounder.

The two-time All-Star said Thursday afternoon he felt much better, said he'd only miss a couple of days, and even jogged slightly as he headed to the field for his match in the camp bunting tournament.


ALL ABOARD! The D-Train is back up and running, according to the Cubs.

Dontrelle Willis, who's in the Cubs' minor-league camp, left after just seven pitches in his only Cactus League appearance Monday, because of shoulder tightness.

But the Cubs said Friday morning the former 22-game winner is pain-free and throwing again.

No word yet on whether/when he'll get invited again as an extra backup pitcher for one of the big-league spring games.

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