Cubs believe their hard work will pay off
New regime set to be hallmark of preparation, fundamentals
MESA, Ariz. -- Starlin Castro knew this year would be different when manager Dale Sveum was standing right behind the shortstop the first day he started taking grounders at Fitch Park.
Sveum also has called closer Carlos Marmol into his office for a pep talk, made sure players and the media know to be on time, and organized a team-wide bunting tournament. Sveum entered the 64-man field but was ousted in the second round by pitcher Paul Maholm, and the Cubs players soon realized their new manager doesn't like to lose.
On paper, the 2012 Cubs may not scare many teams. New third baseman Ian Stewart hit zero home runs last season in the big leagues and is replacing someone who could be counted on for 20-plus dingers and 90-something RBIs. First baseman Bryan LaHair had nearly as many at-bats in Venezuela this winter as he has in the Majors. The bullpen may include a slender 22-year-old making the leap from Class A to the show.
You can focus on the negatives. Sveum sees the positives, and on Thursday, the Cubs kick off the season under their new manager eager to prove that hard work, preparation, and good, fundamental baseball can win.
W: Clippard (1-0) L: Marmol (0-1)
SV: Lidge (1)
Chicago opens at Wrigley Field against Washington with Ryan Dempster eager to set a better tone than he did one year ago, when he lost to the Pirates in his first Opening Day start for the Cubs. The Nationals will counter with phenom Stephen Strasburg.
Sveum has been asked about changing the culture in Chicago. After all, the Cubs haven't been to the World Series since 1945 and haven't won since 1908.
"People say that, but I don't know what the culture was before because I was never here," Sveum said. "We all know it's been a long time since the Cubs have won a World Series, but in the meantime, I don't know what's gone on here.
"I just wanted to bring in my two cents and get people to do things the way I expect them to do it, and how I expect them to play the game," Sveum said. "Everybody's had a great spring that way. They've played hard and worked hard and I can't ask for anything else."
Sveum's face has been on billboards in Chicago and promoted as part of a "Baseball is Better" ad campaign sparked by what Theo Epstein said at his news conference in late October when he was introduced as president of baseball operations. Sveum may be the manager, but Epstein has posed for more photos and signed more autographs in Mesa.
Matt Garza, who will follow Dempster in the rotation, calls the new manager a "blue collar guy."
"That's what you need here," Garza said. "We work a normal 9-to-5. In order to survive here, you have to be able to get up and put your work in. That's the way Cubs baseball should be and the way I think it's going to be."
It's part of the "Cubs way," which Epstein wants ingrained in the organization from the Dominican Summer League to the 25 players on the big league roster. It's an attempt to create a hard-working, prepared team that can get to the postseason consistently.
The 2012 Cubs will need to play the game right. Last year's team lost 91 games, had the worst defense in the Major Leagues, compiled a 4.33 staff ERA and had to scramble for replacements after losing two members of the starting rotation in the first five days.
Castro led the National League in hits, but also was first in errors. Sveum has not only been hanging around shortstop, where he played for 12 seasons, but also in the video room, giving Castro pointers on his head, his hands, his pivot.
"It's obvious after last year that we had to get better," second baseman Darwin Barney said of the Cubs' defense. "We're trying to talk as much as we can and pick each other up and be there for each other.
"I think that's the feeling in the whole clubhouse. Everyone wants to work together and have one goal."
That goal is to win. You can laugh. The Cubs aren't. Stewart, who takes over at third for Aramis Ramirez, said he sees similarities between the Cubs and the 2007 Rockies, who won the NL pennant but lost in the World Series to the Red Sox. Colorado surged into the postseason with a 20-8 September.
"The expectations are not real high, but there is a lot of optimism because we have a lot of good young players," Stewart said. "We have good pitching, good defense and some guys are swinging it real well. If we can take that into the season and continue to play the way we have been the last week or so in Spring Training, you never know."
The other corner man is LaHair, finally getting a chance at the age of 29. He was the Pacific Coast League Most Valuable Player last year at Triple-A Iowa, hitting 38 home runs, and clubbed another 15 in Venezuela.
The Cubs are counting on power from 36-year-old Alfonso Soriano, who ranked among the Cactus League leaders in homers.
"That's the most important thing so far in Spring Training is that those guys show us respect," Soriano said of Sveum and his staff. "If they treat us the right way, we can perform better in the field and we can have a better team and win. I don't care if I'm batting three, four or five, the way they show me how they want to make people better, that's huge for me. The way they treat the people, the way they work, the manager, [coach] Dave McKay, the rest of the coaching staff, everybody's on one page, winning.
"That's the best thing I see so far. I think that's why this Spring Training is so fun. They know what they want and they know what we can do. That's very important."
Soriano's enthusiasm is contagious.
"You're out there by the cage and Soriano everyday is like, 'Man, it feels good to just want to win, it feels good to not worry about individual stuff and just see what you can do to help the team win every day,'" Barney said. "Seeing Soriano running around station to station, saying things like that, it's going to rub off on everybody."
The Cubs' lineup may change a lot over the course of 162 games. They don't have an obvious high on-base guy to lead off, but David DeJesus was expected to begin in the No. 1 spot. He's one of the new left-handed bats in the regular lineup, joining Stewart and LaHair.
What Sveum is hoping he can count on is a steady, innings-eating pitching staff. Dempster and Garza will be followed by Jeff Samardzija, Chris Volstad and Paul Maholm. Samardzija has finally made the transition from wide receiver to big league pitcher. And they've got Randy Wells and Travis Wood at Triple-A Iowa. There's depth, which the Cubs didn't have last year.
"I'll stack our starting rotation with anybody," Sveum said. "It's a pretty nice rotation if they live up to their capabilities. ... Throwing strikes, keeping the ball on the ground, making quality pitches, we've got five guys who can do that. We've got guys who can move the ball, make the ball go sideways. It's a nice rounded-out starting staff and everybody on it is a completely different pitcher, too."
The bullpen is in flux. Marmol led the NL with 10 blown saves last season and compiled his highest ERA (4.01) since he became a full-time reliever in 2007. Kerry Wood, 34, is the prime setup pitcher, but he has been given the most time off this spring for no stated reason other than to avoid injury. It'll take a while to get to know the rest of the guys.
The prognosticators aren't picking the Cubs to climb from fifth to first in the NL Central. Sveum doesn't care.
"Predictions and odds are what they are," Sveum said. "Hot starts and getting people doing things in the right spots can change a whole lot of things over the course of a season. The bottom line is when you have starting pitching like we do, you can do a lot of things if other people live up to half of their expectations during the season, and you catch the ball and you're getting timely hitting."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.