MESA, Ariz. -- Jeff Samardzija is eager to build off last season and grab one of the spots in the Cubs' rotation.

In the final two months of last season, the right-hander compiled a 1.26 ERA, giving up four earned runs over 28 2/3 innings. But he was pitching in relief then. Can he be a starter?

"That's going to be the million-dollar question in Spring Training," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said on Thursday. "Against live hitters [on Thursday], he threw the heck out of the ball and had great command, which he has every time. It's going to be an interesting decision later this month."

The competition for the final spots on the roster begins in earnest on Friday, when the Cubs play the first of two intrasquad games at HoHoKam Park. Cactus League action starts on Sunday, when the Cubs face the Athletics at 2:05 p.m. CT.

Samardzija arrived early to Arizona to get used to the weather and throwing off dirt mounds, rather than pitching inside off a plastic mound in Chicago.

"I wanted to carry that momentum I had at the end of the year last year into this year," he said. "I think I've done that. I'm very happy with how I threw today. I'm really champing at the bit to get these games going."

The difference is that Samardzija's command is better, and he's more aggressive with his command.

"I started bringing my cutter back in that I had two years ago when I was starting [at Triple-A] Iowa," Samardzija said. "It's understanding that, as a starter, I want these guys to put my ball in play early and I want to pitch deep in games. An emphasis on command. As a reliever, you come in and you can throw as hard as you want and get away with that. But as a starter, I want low effort and get a lot of action early in the count."

He's got some competition. Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza and Paul Maholm are set for the Cubs' rotation -- with Samardzija competing with Randy Wells, Chris Volstad, Travis Wood, Andy Sonnanstine and Casey Coleman, among others, for the final two spots.

McKay covers the basics with Cubs' outfielders

MESA, Ariz. -- New Cubs coach Dave McKay isn't assuming anything when it comes to outfield defense.

"His knowledge is limitless," outfielder Dave Sappelt said of McKay. "He started from the beginning. Most coaches skip all the stuff that you need to know because they think you already know it. With him, he starts from the beginning and gives you every edge you can have on defense and on the basepaths, too. He's pointing out stuff that I've never heard of. That's always a positive."

OK, so what is McKay telling them?

"Nah, I can't give out the secrets," Sappelt said.

McKay has 26 years of Major League coaching experience with the Athletics and Cardinals. It helps that he's well-versed in the National League Central.

"I know when I hired Dave, I was fortunate to get him," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said on Thursday. "He's probably one of the best -- if not the best -- outfield and baserunning coaches in the game.

"The good thing about Dave is, he explains things real simple and they understand it. When you have passion like he does, players feed off that and they gain the same passion -- especially when they see results right away. You always need results when you're getting somebody to change a habit."

Sappelt said McKay knows all the tricks of the trade.

"He has a pretty good outlook on everybody," Sappelt said. "He's a hard worker for being as old as he is."

Sappelt, 25, then laughed. McKay turned 62 in January.

"He can move, too," Sappelt said. "He's in the best shape I've ever seen. He jumps around, he's quick still, lot of energy."

OK, back to outfield drills. A lot of slower outfielders can make up for their lack of speed by being in good positions. That is part of McKay's plan.

"That's what we're trying to work on, and hit with every aspect," Sappelt said. "Slower speed guys can still get an edge by jumps, and how you field the ball and how you bring the ball up to your throwing hand. There's all kinds of stuff you can improve as a slower guy. The fast guy can always get to the ball."

Sappelt came up in the Reds' organization and made his big league debut last August, coincidentally against the Cubs. Acquired by Chicago in the Sean Marshall deal, he's trying to win a spot as an extra outfielder. He is learning a lot.

"This is probably the best group I've been around," Sappelt said. "It's 100 miles an hour for everybody. I think Dale coming in here, that's what he's trying to change with the team -- and it's rubbed off on a lot of guys."

Barney making an impression on Sveum

MESA, Ariz. -- Darwin Barney has impressed Cubs manager Dale Sveum this spring.

"I'm a little overwhelmed from watching him from the other side," Sveum said of the Cubs' second baseman. "He's a lot stronger and a lot quicker than I thought. His first step is really good. He's still learning second base, and there are some things I've talked to him about around the bag.

"The ball is coming off his bat really well. I've been really impressed. He's one of those ultimate professionals, who will try to make himself a better player every day."

Barney followed a program outlined by Tim Buss, the club's strength and conditioning coach, and regained the weight he lost last season. He's now 190 pounds and looks stronger. It should help him handle the grind of a 162-game season, too.

"You've got one shot, one window in this game, and my thought was, 'Why not now?'" Barney said. "Let's try to get better, let's do what I have to do."

Barney played more shortstop than second base in the Minor Leagues, so he's still making the adjustment. Sveum, who also played second, has helped in the transition. They've talked about positioning for double plays -- things that Barney didn't have a chance to learn.

Sveum is still learning the players on his roster, even though he saw the Cubs' 16 games each year while with the Brewers.

"You're not watching them thinking, 'Hey, I'm going to get that job next year, and I better watch these guys,'" Sveum said. "That's not one of the things you do as a coach on the other team. You're trying to beat the other team."

Extra bases

• Don't read much into the Cubs' lineups early this spring. Sveum is still experimenting.

"I'll probably have different lineups every day," he said on Thursday. "Like I told these guys, don't look into any of the lineups that I throw out in the first week or so. I'm just getting a feel for things."

The Cubs get started on Friday with the first of two intrasquad games at HoHoKam Park, beginning at 2 p.m. CT. Travis Wood and Randy Wells will each start.

One thing Sveum hasn't had to worry about is how hard the players are working in his first camp.

"The effort has been tremendous," Sveum said.

• Starlin Castro, Joe Mather, Samardzija and Wells advanced to the sweet 16 of the Cubs' bunting tournament on Thursday.

"I've got Wells next -- and I think we can look beyond that round," Samardzija said, confidently.

The tourney shifts to the back field at HoHoKam, as the Cubs move from the Fitch Park facilities to the stadium. Sveum will face Dempster in second-round action on Friday. Other matches include Carlos Marmol vs. Maholm, Geovany Soto vs. Jeff Baker and Marlon Byrd vs. David DeJesus.

• Soto, the Cubs' regular catcher who has been sidelined with a groin injury, is making progress.

"He's hitting a lot more, everything is coming together," Sveum said. "He's not having any discomfort or feeling anything in his agility. You can look for him back between [March 7-10] to play in a game."

• Sveum is featured on billboards as part of a "Baseball is Better" ad campaign for the Cubs back in Chicago.

"You appreciate it, but it's not something -- I've never had my picture on a billboard," the new Cubs manager said. "I'm not the most fashionable guy, or somebody who is going to smile and take pictures very well all the time. I've heard [the billboard] is OK. I'm not real comfortable with it."