Time running out in Cubs rotation battle

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Time running out in Cubs rotation battle

Saturday, March 12, 2011Posted: 4:00 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Randy Wells didnt need a media-training seminar to know this: Pitch well and all the critics will back off. Everyone will start writing nice things about you again.

No one expected Wells to win 12 games as a rookie in 2009. Everyone had an opinion on what went wrong last year, when he lost 14 games, a number that overshadowed his 32 starts and 194.1 innings.

At 28, Wells has a perspective and a sense of humor about the way it works. On Thursday morning, he sat through a session on dealing with reporters and social media run by a Major League Baseball representative. He then went out and limited the Indians to one hit in four scoreless innings.

Afterward, Wells was asked if he had the inside track to a spot in the rotation, which is what the image-makers call a vulnerable question. He smiled and went into full-clich mode.

Its all up to Q, Wells said. Im just one man.

Manager Mike Quade isnt prepared to publicly announce his fourth and fifth starters just yet. But its hard to ignore what Wells has done, stringing together nine scoreless innings through his first three games.

Just keep it rolling, Quade said.
Decision time
At a certain point, every day seems exactly the same in spring training. You lose sight of how quickly time is slipping away. There is the illusion that Opening Day is still almost three weeks away.

But decision time is fast approaching, which is what makes every inning so critical for Carlos Silva.

Another wave of cuts is expected around St. Patricks Day. For the group of pitchers trying to make the rotation, there might only be one or two more chances to make an impression and thats if front-office opinions havent already hardened.

By now its clear that the Cubs are not backing off at all from the Andrew Cashner experiment. Any doubts they may have had about moving the 24-year-old into the rotation were gone once they signed Kerry Wood and imported Matt Garza.

This isnt robbing the bullpen, because Wood will be the right-handed power arm in front of closer Carlos Marmol. And Cashner wont have to immediately be a frontline starter though the organization thinks thats what he can eventually become because Garza is there to take away some pressure.

Cashner remembers sitting on his parents couch back home in Texas and watching Wood hit a homer in Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS. He looks up to Wood and Ryan Dempster, two pitchers who have made 30-plus starts and saved 30-plus games in a season. They are always willing to help.

There may not be a more ideal time than now to fully commit to Cashner as a starter.

Hes got a lot of different folks around him that have (been successful), Quade said. He can really draw from (them) and he does listen (well). I get the biggest kick out of Cash, because he is a country guy, but he pays attention and sees stuff.

This is a really good environment for him to attempt to make this transition and for him to be able to attack it the best he can. I think these guys would be the first to tell him groundball to short on one pitch beats the heck out of a six-pitch or seven-pitch strikeout.

Image makeover

Cashner has improved steadily each outing and the Cubs feel his changeup is close to becoming a real weapon. He can throw the ball close to 100 mph, but hes really learning how to pitch, set up hitters and hold runners on at first base.

Eventually, Cashner will reach the crossroads where people stop looking at his potential and start focusing on what he isnt doing yet. In a down year, Wells went from being the converted catcher, the 38th-round pick, the feel-good story, to a disappointment.

Wells can be funny my britches fit just fine and brutally honest. He seems to have learned from the experience, and by watching his 2010 starts.

A lot of it is just staying calm and not panicking when you get a guy in scoring position (or) walk the leadoff guy, Wells said. (Its) trying to keep your wits about you. (If) a guy gets a hit and scores a run, its not the end of the world.

When things got bad, I tried to force things instead of now just taking a deep breath, relaxing, evaluating the situation and making a good pitch.

Its not as easy as flipping a switch, but Wells and Cashner have shown enough growth that it wouldnt be surprising to see them starting April 4 and 5 at Wrigley Field.

(Sometimes) you almost pitch like you dont want to go down rather than stay, Wells said. (When) you pitch aggressive, (like) this is your job and this is your livelihood and nobodys going to take it from you rather than pitching to not get sent down (that mentality makes people successful.)"

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Kyle Schwarber catching again is a good step for a banged-up Cubs team

Kyle Schwarber catching again is a good step for a banged-up Cubs team

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs are so strong up the middle that Javier Baez can star for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic and return to camp as a super-utility guy/late-game defensive replacement. 

But that projection in late March is based on across-the-board health, which never happens in a 162-game season. World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (stiff neck) hasn't played in a Cactus League game in almost a week. All-Star shortstop Addison Russell (stiff back) became a late scratch to Friday's lineup at Sloan Park.

Center fielder Albert Almora Jr. exited a 4-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians with what the Cubs called "left neck tightness" after trying to make a diving catch in the third inning, though he still plans to play in Las Vegas this weekend.  

On the other side of the spring-training complex in Mesa – away from the crowd of 15,473 in a minor-league game against a Colorado Rockies squad – the Cubs did get a positive piece of news on the health front: Kyle Schwarber went four innings behind the plate, going Tony Pena style and trying to reduce the stress on his body.

"I love catching," Schwarber said. "Whenever I played baseball, I was always a catcher. For me to be able to do that today – and feel pretty good about myself walking away from the day – it was a good step."

This is clearly important to Schwarber, an intensely driven personality who doesn't want to hear "no." Otherwise, the Cubs probably would have shut this down already, not wanting to risk it with a franchise player, someone who might blast 35 homers at the top of their lineup.

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But the medical staff cleared Schwarber when pitchers and catchers reported to Arizona – 10 months after he underwent surgery on his left knee to reconstruct his ACL and repair his LCL – and it could become a valuable skill again. 

"The most difficult part I would probably say was setup-wise," Schwarber said, "trying to find that timing of your moves and everything like that. Sometimes I felt like I was a little late getting my setup. But that all came. It's been a year since I got behind there, so overall everything went really well."

The Cubs already have one of the best young catchers in the game (Willson Contreras) and a two-time All-Star making $14 million this season backing him up (Miguel Montero). Schwarber doesn't want to put a number on how many starts he might make behind the plate, though the Cubs have framed it as in case of emergency, an extra late-inning option for manager Joe Maddon or maybe something that makes sense with a particular matchup. 

"As of right now, it's still the third-catcher role," Schwarber said. "I'm down for whatever, but I know the majority of the time is going to be out there in left."

Joe Maddon offers up Cubs strength coach to be Madonna's trainer

Joe Maddon offers up Cubs strength coach to be Madonna's trainer

MESA, Ariz. — Think the stir-crazy Cubs have been in Arizona long enough? Near the end of a camp that has been relatively tame — at least compared to last year's parade of mimes, zoo animals and karaoke jams — manager Joe Maddon heard about Madonna's contest to find a new dance trainer and immediately thought of the man behind those gonzo stunts.

Because that's what a three-time Manager of the Year does. So the organization's content arm put together a one-minute clip nominating strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss, releasing it to 1.7 million followers on Friday through the @Cubs Twitter account.

"We're hoping that Madonna has an opportunity to check that out," Maddon said at the Sloan Park complex. "We're willing to send even more information — whatever she possibly needs — to see that our guy's the best."

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Set to synthesized 1980s-style music, the aerobics video is rated more PG than the actual "Bussy" experience. The Cubs didn't show Buss leading the team stretch in a Speedo and a Lucha Libre mask. A slow-motion part of the montage does feature Buss standing alone in the clubhouse, dousing himself in beer during a clinching celebration.

"We could have made it more edgy," Maddon said. "There were so many more ways to go with it. I was kind of pleased with it. I thought it presented his abilities very well. His physique was presented in a manner that she could be duly impressed with the fact that our strength and conditioning coach fashions that form."

What if Madonna steals Buss from the Cubs?

"We could share somehow," Maddon said. "She'll fire him after a couple weeks anyway."