Opening Day or not, Dempster needs fast start with Cubs

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Opening Day or not, Dempster needs fast start with Cubs

MESA, Ariz. Its not that the Cubs werent working hard before, Ryan Dempster said, before making an observation that pretty much sums up the entire organization.

Theres extra motivation any time you have new bosses, Dempster said. You want to make a good first impression. I think its only human nature, so I know a lot of guys have been pushing themselves to do the best they can.

Dempster is two months shy of his 35th birthday and will make 14 million in the final year of his contract. President Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer want to build this team around young players under club control.

Dempster who threw two innings and gave up one run in Mondays 8-7 loss to the Oakland As at HoHoKam Stadium doesnt want to look into the future.

All of those pieces fall into place if you just go out there and do your job, Dempster said. The easiest thing for me to do is just focus on my job, and thats preparing in between starts and every fifth day to go out there and do the best job I can of being mentally and physically prepared to pitch.

Dempster could be getting the ball on April 5 at Wrigley Field against the Washington Nationals. Matt Garza would be the other logical candidate to start Opening Day.

Manager Dale Sveum said a decision will come within the next week, and acknowledged the symbolism behind it: Yeah, that all goes into it, theres no question about it. Who had the better year, the matchups, the leadership, whos been here the longest (and) the longevity of a career.

That could favor an established veteran like Dempster, who drew the assignment last year and put up a 9.58 ERA in his first six starts, part of a month he said hes already forgotten.

(Dempster said) he had an unbelievable spring training last year where he had unbelievable command of his fastball, Sveum said. That might have got him in a little bit of trouble because he mentioned he wasnt using his secondary pitches maybe as much. He was so caught up in having great fastball command, he didnt really work on his offspeed stuff in spring training last year.

Dempster was a little more evasive: Thats a really strong possibility. I never really thought of that. Ive been working on everything this spring. My offspeed stuff is already ahead of where it was last year.

Dempster managed to rebound and finished at 10-14 with a 4.80 ERA. He accounted for 21 quality starts and more than 200 innings. His run support (3.90 average) was the lowest on the staff. There were also times where it seemed obvious he was left in one or two batters too long.

There are all kinds of ways you can make stats look how you want them to look and use excuses, Sveum said. The bottom line is he knows hes better than he showed last year and I think hes on a mission to prove that.

Coming off a down season and heading into a contract year and with new management charting every pitch it shouldnt be hard to find motivation.

Theres a bright future on the horizon, Dempster said, but theres also a bright future right now. There are a lot of good players in here. We got to go out there on the field and be about it, not just talk about it.

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."