Starters should be strength for Cubs
All-Stars Zambrano and Dempster lead formidable rotation
As the Cubs count down to the start of Spring Training, we'll take a look at different elements of the team. Today's installment: The rotation.
CHICAGO -- The magic number this season for the Cubs' starting pitchers is 200.
That's not how many years it's been since the team won a World Series, but how many innings the starters want to total. Greg Maddux said his goal every year was 200 innings, not 20 wins. If a starter can reach that figure, there's a good chance he's going deep in games, and if he's doing that, there's a better chance the team is winning.
The Cubs enter the 2009 season with three starters who should reach 200. Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly topped 200 innings last year, which was quite a feat for Dempster, who had been the club's closer the three previous seasons. He'd pitched 233 innings in three seasons, and last year, totaled 206 2/3. Carlos Zambrano came close with 188 2/3 innings. Only two of the 18 National League pitchers who accumulated 200 innings last season had losing records -- San Francisco's Matt Cain and Florida's Scott Olson.
Rich Harden, who went 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA in 12 starts after he was acquired mid-season from Oakland, will fill the fourth spot. Sean Marshall heads into Spring Training as the leading candidate for the No. 5 vacancy, created by the trade of Jason Marquis to Colorado.
Pitching coach Larry Rothschild hinted during the Cubs Convention that Harden was behind schedule this offseason, but manager Lou Piniella said the right-hander will be ready when pitchers and catchers report to Mesa, Ariz., on Feb. 13.
"If we get 25, 26 starts out of him, we're doing good," Piniella said.
OK, they don't need 200 innings from Harden, who has had problems with his right shoulder in the past. The Cubs will likely continue to give him an extra day between starts if possible, something they did at the end of the 2008 season for all the starters.
Asked if he needed another starter besides Zambrano, Dempster, Lilly, Harden and Marshall, Piniella said: "We're fine."
That won't be enough to squelch the Jake Peavy rumors that pop up every other day. The San Diego Padres want to deal the 2007 Cy Young Award winner to cut payroll and Peavy has said he'll waive his no-trade clause to go to Chicago, but the Cubs have been reluctant to add the $63 million he is owed on his contract until the ownership situation is resolved. It was reported on Thursday that the Tribune Co. has picked the Ricketts family as the winning bidder to purchase the Chicago Cubs.
"Anybody wants to see Peavy on any team," Zambrano said. "I'd like to see him here. If he comes to Chicago, he will be welcomed and it would be great."
"It's almost like unfinished business," Dempster said. "You feel like you played seven-eighths of a season and didn't finish the whole thing."
The right-hander did prove you can go home again as a starter, winning a career-high 17 games and holding batters to a .227 average, third best in the NL.
"I want to be a guy who the team can lean on every fifth day to do his job and not just give innings, but give quality innings and give the team a chance to win the ballgame," Dempster said.
"It's a big motivation to go out and want to have another good year and have a better chance of moving along," Dempster said. "First and foremost, we have to go to Spring Training and get out of there healthy. We have another good team and we want to go out and have fun and play hard and compete, and we'll be in good shape again."
Lilly and Zambrano will get some game action before their teammates. They both are expected to pitch for their respective countries in the World Baseball Classic. This will be Lilly's first time in the event, while Zambrano pitched in the inaugural Classic in 2006.
Having the two out of camp will free up innings so the Cubs can find a sixth man, or swing man, who can sub if needed. Marshall, eager to step into the rotation, filled that role in 2008. Among the candidates are newly acquired Garrett Olson and Minor Leaguer Mitch Atkins.
However, Zambrano isn't sure he will compete for Team Venezuela. He is to undergo Lasik surgery on his right eye before Spring Training and says he'll see how he feels after the procedure.
Big Z is eager to get things started. Zambrano would like the ball on Opening Day. It would be his fifth straight such assignment.
"Why not? I think every pitcher wants to be the Opening Day starter," Zambrano said. "I'll be ready for that."
The Cubs have made sure Zambrano is ready for the regular season. They sent one of the athletic trainers to Venezuela three times to work with the right-hander on his stretching and conditioning for his shoulder. He is coming off a 14-6 season and 3.91 ERA.
"Whatever happened last year is in the past," Zambrano said. "I have to work hard and keep myself in shape and do a good job."
The Cubs finished 2008 ranked third in the NL with a team ERA of 3.87, and they set a Major League record by leading in strikeouts for the eighth straight year. It's a strong staff that needs to stay healthy. Chicago general manager Jim Hendry recalls the 2004 team, which he felt was the best in the NL. But injuries shelved several key players, and the Cubs finished third in the division at 89-73.
Chicago appears to have the strongest starting staff in the NL Central, but there was no bold proclamation by Dempster at the Cubs Convention, no boast that the team will win the World Series. He said that one year ago before pitchers and catchers had even broken a sweat.
"We'll take one game at a time," Dempster said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.