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What to watch for as Cubs spring games begin
By Bruce Miles | Daily Herald Columnist

Ryan Dempster had neck stiffness early in camp but appears to be OK now.

 

Associated Press

Jeff Samardzija, who pitches Wednesday, is battling for the fifth starter's spot.

 

Koyie Hill is in a battle for the backup job at catcher.

 

Mary Beth Nolan | Staff Photographer

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Published: 2/24/2009 3:05 PM

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There are two ways to look at Wednesday's start of Cactus League play for the Cubs.

One is hurray, baseball games finally are here.

The other is to dig in and get ready to slog through 39 exhibition games.

That's right, the Cubs will play nearly a quarter of a regular-season schedule, split among Arizona, Las Vegas and new Yankee Stadium, before they get to Houston for Opening Day on April 6.

For this we have the World Baseball Classic to thank, as it extended an already-too-long spring training by another week.

Cubs fans should hope manager Lou Piniella tells his regulars to stay completely away from the park on some days, lest they suffer from sunstroke and baseball burnout.

The WBC also is making for crowded camps. Even though the Cubs are losing only three regulars to the WBC (Geovany Soto, Ted Lilly and Kosuke Fukudome), they'll likely keep a lot of minor-leaguers and nonroster guys around longer than they normally would.

The Dodgers visit Hohokam Park on Wednesday, with the Brewers coming over Thursday. Then, the Cubs travel to Surprise to play the Rangers before the White Sox come calling Saturday.

Here are some guys to watch and some things to be on the lookout for in the coming weeks:

Pleading the fifth: Jeff Samardzija starts for the Cubs on Wednesday, and Sean Marshall pitches Thursday. Both are in the hunt to be the fifth starter, with Piniella saying Marshall has the leg up. The starting pitchers are likely to go 2 innings apiece in their first outings.

However it turns out, Samardzija and Marshall, as well as No. 5 candidates Chad Gaudin and Aaron Heilman, will be well "stretched out" by the end of camp.

Shouldering the load: Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden will be held back until next week as they build strength in their cranky right shoulders. The Cubs say both will be ready to start the season on time, with Zambrano going either on Opening Day or on April 7, if Piniella gives the ball to Ryan Dempster on April 6. The way Zambrano has performed on past Opening Days, it might not be a bad idea to start Dempster.

Harden probably will go April 10 at Milwaukee, if things go to plan.

Pain in the neck: Dempster reportedly is OK after suffering from some neck stiffness early in camp. He may start Tuesday against Oakland.

As he did last year, Dempster reported to camp in fine shape, and he's still got the glove waggle going before he delivers a pitch.

Mitch Atkins: Who's he? He's the guy who went a combined 17-7 last year between Class AA Tennessee and Class AAA Iowa, including a 12-game winning streak between the two clubs. He's scheduled to follow Samardzija on Wednesday.

The 23-year-old Atkins was the Cubs' minor-league pitcher of the year last season. A seventh-round draft pick in 2004, he's 44-27 with a 3.84 ERA in five minor-league seasons.

Atkins bypassed a number of pitchers last year, including the once highly touted Donnie Veal, whom the Pirates took in the Rule 5 draft. The Cubs like Atkins because they say he knows how to pitch and isn't afraid. He could be up in the majors sometime this year after flying under the radar most of his pro career.

Right field: The high skies, bright sun and big outfields in Arizona will test Milton Bradley, as he goes from being primarily a DH in Texas last year to a full-time position player in the National League. Bradley says his legs are fine as he takes over in right for Kosuke Fukudome, who will rejoin the Cubs after playing for Japan in the WBC. Fukudome will then move to center field along with Reed Johnson.

Third base: With the departure of Mark DeRosa, the Cubs will audition several players to back up Aramis Ramirez at third. Ramirez has played in 149, 132 and 157 games, respectively, over the last three seasons, but he'll need a breather from time to time.

Mike Fontenot and Aaron Miles have taken grounders at third this spring, as have former catcher Jake Fox and nonroster man Bobby Scales.

The closer: The Cubs are happy Carlos Marmol opted not to pitch for the Dominican Republic in the WBC. Marmol seems determined to succeed Kerry Wood as closer. Kevin Gregg will provide the competition. Whoever doesn't get the job will pitch their eighth inning. The Cubs figure they win either way.

Catching competition: The Cubs say they're serious about making the backup job to Geovany Soto a true competition between Koyie Hill and Paul Bako. Hill is a switch hitter, and Bako bats left-handed. Realistically, neither backstop is expected to provide much offense. Bako is respected for his defense, but Cubs pitchers came to like and respect Hill over the past two years.

bmiles@dailyherald.com