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02/22/12 4:00 PM EST

LaHair to start, but will take nothing for granted

At 29, Cubs' slugging first baseman vows to seize opportunity

MESA, Ariz. -- He's twice as strong physically as one year ago, but that doesn't mean Bryan LaHair anticipates hitting 76 homers this season for the Cubs.

LaHair, who won the Pacific Coast League MVP Award last season after belting 38 homers and driving in 109 runs for Triple-A Iowa, enters spring camp with a spot on the Opening Day roster. Finally.

"It's a good feeling," LaHair said Wednesday. "I plan on working harder than I did before to keep it. I don't want this to be a one-year thing, I want it to be more than one. I want to be part of something and build toward something.

"This is probably, right now, the best franchise in all of sports as far as wanting to win," he said. "This is the place to do it if you're going to do it, so it's definitely a great opportunity."

LaHair, 29, hasn't gotten many opportunities. Selected by the Mariners in the 39th round in 2002, he made his Major League debut in July 2008 with Seattle. He began that year at Triple-A Tacoma, but eventually got 39 starts, primarily at first, and batted .250.

After the season ended, he didn't get another big league at-bat until last year with the Cubs when he was called up Sept. 4. In 20 games, he hit .288 with five doubles, two triples, two homers and six RBIs. Carlos Pena was the Cubs' first baseman last season, hitting 28 home runs, but wasn't re-signed for 2012.

Now, LaHair finds himself the subject of more interviews and more attention. In December at the Winter Meetings, he met with Theo Epstein, Cubs president of baseball operations, and general manager Jed Hoyer. They didn't make any guarantees, but they and Cubs manager Dale Sveum have said LaHair is the No. 1 first baseman, and maintained that even after the team acquired top prospect Anthony Rizzo.

"I'm just going to take one day at a time and get ready for the season," LaHair said. "I'm looking forward to a big year."

The biggest threat is Rizzo, acquired from the Padres in the Andrew Cashner deal. Another left-handed bat, Rizzo hit .331 at Triple-A Tucson, but struggled in 49 games with the Padres, batting .141.

"There's always a chance of somebody coming into Spring Training, there's always that guy who lights things up," Sveum said, "but I think right now, we're committed to LaHair being our first baseman."

Some players never make it in the big leagues, and some are unfairly labeled that they can't play in the Majors. LaHair hasn't had much of a chance.

"Some guys can't do certain things but this kid, obviously, the last two years and going to winter ball this year has made some adjustments and he's been tearing the cover off the ball," Sveum said. "He swung the bat pretty well when he came up in September last year.

"The fact is, I think it's clicked for him right now," Sveum said.

After the regular season ended, LaHair played for Magallanes in Venezuela, and batted .272 in 47 games with 15 homers and 29 RBIs. He hit .314 against right-handers, .176 against lefties. In 2008, he was 2-for-22 against lefties while with the Mariners. Sveum said he may use Jeff Baker as a backup at first against tough left-handed pitchers, but there is no platoon. LaHair did hit six of his 15 homers off lefties in Venezuela.

After coming to the Winter Meetings to receive the Minor League Player of the Year Award, LaHair could've gone home, but instead returned to Venezuela to finish the season. He was hitting .237 at the time.

"I just wanted to help the team get to the playoffs," he said. "I felt obligated to help them get there and they kept giving me more money, too, but for the most part, I really felt obligated. My goal was to get that team to the playoffs."

Wasn't he worn out?

"I hit a wall for about two or three weeks, and then I started kicking it into gear in the weight room and started running," he said. "I fought through the tiredness and then caught a third wind at that point and finished strong."

He reported to Fitch Park even stronger. LaHair worked out in Venezuela and also at a gym in Hudson, Mass.

"I'm about as ready as I can be," he said. "I'm probably in the best shape of my life. I'm twice as strong as I was last year and one year older, so that's all good."

But he's not stopping. This spring, LaHair is adding outfielder David DeJesus' workout program to try and increase his speed, agility and balance.

"I'm never going to break any records on the track, but if I can get a little better and it helps me get more explosive, I'll try it," he said.

He's not only stronger physically, but mentally as well.

"If you're stronger, it's more confidence, you continue to trust what you can do as far as hitting balls hard," LaHair said. "If I keep hitting balls hard because I'm stronger, more balls could leave or get in the gap. I just feel stronger. It's all good."

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.