Cubs trying to tap into that Rays magic again

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Cubs trying to tap into that Rays magic again

MESA, Ariz. The Cubs have a pitcher whos been tested in October and went to the World Series with the Tampa Bay Rays. They have to figure out what to do with him now. His name is not Matt Garza.

Andy Sonnanstine emerged as a key piece on that 2008 miracle team, which captured the American League pennant one year after losing 96 games. The Rays didnt care how much money the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox spent. They still found a way.

Theo Epsteins first offseason as Cubs baseball czar resembled the Rays more than any of the big-market splashes he used to make with the Red Sox. There were value signings hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, like this one-year deal.

Sonnanstine even mentioned how he was looking forward to a change of scenery, the buzzwords the front office used in trading for Ian Stewart from the Colorado Rockies.

Sonnanstine won 10 games before the All-Star break in 2008 and crossed the 200-inning mark during the playoffs. He won nine games combined for the Rays the next three seasons.

There was a combination of the scouting report getting out there, people getting a little more familiar, Sonnanstine said. In 2008, there were a lot of teams that had never seen me before and I was switching arm angles, changing tempos and first go-round it worked great. I won five games quicker than anybody else in that organizations history.

I think the hitters made a great adjustment to me the next year and I didnt make as good of an adjustment to counteract that. I still think Im the same guy. Im confident in my ability and I think coming to the National League should kind of help me. (People here) havent really seen me. I can use that to my advantage and exploit some weaknesses.

But Sonnanstine, who will turn 29 in two weeks, couldnt have been all gimmicks. The right-hander was Tampa Bays minor-league pitcher of the year in 2006. He finished the 2008 regular season with a 124 strikeouts against 37 walks and survived in that brutal division.

The Cubs tried to tap into that Rays magic last winter, when former general manager Jim Hendry signed Carlos Pena to a pillow contract and pulled off a blockbuster deal for Garza. They got what they expected from Pena and Garza, but it wasnt enough to save jobs.

Sonnanstine called Pena who liked to write Conquer the now! inspirational messages on the dry-erase board in the clubhouse and went back to Tampa on a one-year deal one of my favorite characters Ive ever met through baseball. The positivity that guy oozes is awesome.

Sonnanstine wondered if Garza still brings in Popeyes fried chicken on the days he pitches. (Yes.)

That, to me, is a great idea, Sonnanstine said. It gives your position guys, your whole team, something to look forward to the day that you need work. So thats an incredibly intelligent chess move.

Sonnanstine faces long odds to make the rotation here, but in 2010 he went 3-1 with a 4.44 ERA in 81 innings, either as a reliever or a spot starter, and the Cubs could use someone like that. His dry sense of humor also wouldnt hurt inside Wrigley Fields cramped clubhouse.

Surely, Epstein remembers that Sonnanstine won Game 4 of the 2008 ALCS at Fenway Park, which helped set the stage for Garza to collect his MVP award. Here Garza has ignored the expectations, looked at this Cubs team and referenced the Rays, saying Why not?

Youd be amazed how many games you can win just with the positive mindset, Sonnanstine said. It (would be) awesome, man, getting back to that World Series. Of course, right now, Im sitting on a 1.000 batting average in the World Series.

Sonnanstine laughed about his 1-for-1 night against the Philadelphia Phillies: But I would gladly take another at-bat in the World Series.

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Joe Maddon's T-shirt slogans can get a little old at times, but the Cubs manager found a new audience in Brett Anderson, who liked the idea of "Be Uncomfortable" after signing a one-year, prove-it deal with the defending champs.

"It's been awesome so far," Anderson said. "That's my running joke – we're a month into it now or whatever it is – and I don't hate anybody yet.

"That's a testament to the group as a whole – and maybe me evolving as a person."

Yes, Anderson's sarcasm, social-media presence and groundball style fits in with a team built around short-term pitching and Gold Glove defense. The if-healthy lefty finished his Cactus League tour on Saturday afternoon by throwing four innings (one unearned run) during a 7-4 loss to the Colorado Rockies in front of 13,565 at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.

Anderson will open the season as the No. 4 starter after a camp that has been remarkably low-key and drama-free.

"I'm kind of cynical by nature, but it's a fun group to be a part of," Anderson said, "(with) young guys that are exciting and happy to be here. And then obviously the mix of veterans, too, that are here with intentions of winning another World Series."

To make that happen, the pitching staff will have to again stay unbelievably healthy. Anderson rolled with a general question about how he physically feels now compared to where he's usually at by this time of year.

"Obviously better than last year, because I was walking with a gimp and all that stuff," said Anderson, who underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a bulging disk in his lower back last March. "No, my body feels good, my arm feels good and you're getting into the dog days of spring training where you're itching to get to the real thing."

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

That's assuming good health – manager Joe Maddon sounded unconcerned about Ben Zobrist (stiff neck), Addison Russell (stiff back) and Albert Almora Jr. (stiff neck) – and the Cubs carrying an eight-man bullpen.

Maddon appeared to eliminate one variable, confirming that La Stella has signaled a willingness to go to Triple-A Iowa if necessary, which would normally be an obvious statement, except for last summer's "Where's Tommy?" episode.

"I haven't even thought about it," Maddon said during Saturday's media session at the Sloan Park complex. "It's not an issue. I thought we handled it pretty openly last year and there's been no blowback whatsoever from the players."

Beyond this – La Stella initially refused to report to the minors last July, moved back home to New Jersey and talked briefly about retirement – an American League scout and a National League scout tracking the Cubs in Arizona both agreed that Szczur looks like the superior player.

Plus Szczur – and not La Stella – is out of minor-league options now.

"When you get this kind of a talent, depth-wise, it's a wonderful problem to have," Maddon said. "And then, of course, the rules start creeping in. The rules in this situation would benefit Matt, which is a good thing, because he's a big-league guy that's been riding the shuttle. He's done it in a very stoic manner, and he's been great for us."

La Stella has allies in the clubhouse – Jake Arrieta got a Coastal Carolina tattoo on his right butt cheek after losing a College World Series bet – and goes about his routine in a quiet, diligent manner.

La Stella is not a distraction at all and can hit left-handed and play the infield – two attributes that Szczur can't bring to Maddon's bench.

"Matt Szczur, to me, is a Major League Baseball player," Maddon said. "You're seeing what Tommy can do from the left side of the plate right now. And then it's just a matter of balancing things out. We've already mentioned that some guys on the infield can play the outfield within this group, thus it presents differently regarding what you need."

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’]

Szczur is hitting .361 with a .994 OPS through 14 Cactus League games and can play all over the outfield. But that skill is diminished when the Cubs already have four established outfielders plus Zobrist and Kris Bryant able to shift from the infield.

Then again, defensive wizard Javier Baez should have the Cubs covered all across the infield in case of an emergency. With the defending World Series champs a week out from facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, we're about to find out if Maddon made his recommendation or had a possible trade scenario or disabled-list situation in mind.

"I love Matt Szczur," Maddon said. "This guy as a teammate – you're not going to get a better one. Nobody's going to get a better one on any team for any reason.

"We haven't decided everything or anything yet. Stuff happens in a very short period of time. He is a major-league baseball player. So we'll just wait a couple more days, see how it plays out. But he's a benefit to any group that has him."