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02/14/09 5:21 PM EST

Marshall favored in fifth starter race

Piniella impressed with left-hander's attitude, progress

MESA, Ariz. -- All Sean Marshall did on the first day of camp Saturday was throw 25 pitches off the mound with the other Cubs hurlers, but he already has the edge in the competition for the vacancy in the rotation.

"Marshall, to me, has gotten better," Chicago manager Lou Piniella said Saturday about the left-hander. "I liked him my first year here. I liked him a whole lot better last year."

In 2007, Marshall was 7-8 with a 3.92 ERA in 21 games with the Cubs, including 19 starts. Last season, he was 3-5 with a 3.86 ERA in 34 games, including seven starts. He began the '08 season at Triple-A Iowa, was called up April 9, then optioned back May 9. He was recalled in late June and stayed with the big league club for the rest of the season.

"One thing about Sean, we used him in different roles and we even sent him to Triple-A and he never once complained," Piniella said. "He did what the organization wanted, and he's improved. He's gotten stronger. He's got a good feel for pitching. I'd feel extremely comfortable with him in the fifth spot. I would think with him coming into this camp that our starting pitching is in pretty darn good shape, assuming everybody stays healthy."

If Marshall takes over the spot vacated by Jason Marquis, who was traded to Colorado, it would give the Cubs a rotation of Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, Rich Harden and Marshall.

Nothing is guaranteed. The plan is to stretch out Jeff Samardzija, Chad Gaudin and Aaron Heilman as well to see if they're better suited for the job.

"If Sean pitches the way I anticipate and stays healthy, he's got a leg up for the fifth spot," Piniella said.

That's fine with Marshall.

"I'd rather start," Marshall said Saturday. "But anything I can do to help the team win some games and give the team some good innings and put some zeros on the board, whether it's in the bullpen or starting or coming in and getting a couple lefties out or getting a base hit, I'm ready to go."

He trained in the Phoenix area this offseason, and even joined another gym so he could get all of his workouts in. On the mound, he worked on his curveball and changeup. Last season, Piniella and pitching coach Larry Rothschild put Marshall into situations where he was tested. He passed.

And he never complained.

"I guess the way I've always felt is that everything happens for a reason," Marshall said. "I had to adapt to a couple different situations, and I was happy to do it. I was helping the team win, and that made me happy to know the coaches and staff appreciated the way I took things. That's what I am, is a go-with-the-flow guy."

So is Piniella. He joked that Carlos Zambrano and his new mustache looked like one of the participants in the Gasparilla Pirate Fest, held in Tampa. Gaudin's long goatee reminded the Cubs manager of one of the Smith Brothers' cherry cough drop family.

The pitchers' mounds were covered by white tents, installed on Friday because there was a slight chance of rain in the forecast. Instead, it was sunny and nearly perfect early February weather for Arizona.

"The first day, all the pitchers look like 20-game winners," Piniella said. "In fact, I told a few of them we should have some pina coladas for them with little umbrellas -- we've got tents and everything else. We might as well have a lounge and serve up some cocktails."

Anyone for a margarita at Lou's Lounge?

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.