Rotation Starting to Take Shape

Zambrano winless on opening day (AP)

The Chicago Cubs rotation is starting to take shape in more ways than one.

First things first, manager Lou Piniella announced that Carlos Zambrano will get the Opening Day start, April 6 at Houston. There had been some question about that because Ryan Dempster had wrested the unofficial title of ace away from Zambrano late last year and got the Game 1 start in the National League Division Series.

Apparently, Piniella didn't want to send Zambrano into a pout after Zambrano said he wanted the ball on Opening Day. Piniella acknowledged that Dempster expressed disappointment at not getting the nod, but Dempster said he never expected the Opening Day start in the first place and that he's fine with going in Game 2. Zambrano will be making his fifth consecutive Opening Day start. He has yet to post a win.

As far as the rest of the rotation goes, Ted Lilly will start the third game in Houston, with Rich Harden going in the series opener at Milwaukee. Off days in the early schedule will enable Piniella to skip his fifth starter, something he's indicated he'll do.

Left-hander Sean Marshall has the inside track on the fifth starter's spot, with right-hander Aaron Heilman making a strong bid. If the No. 5 spot does get skipped, Piniella can use either Marshall or Heilman out of the bullpen. Marshall was a swingman last year, and the Cubs were happy with his relief work. Heilman was exclusively a reliever for the Mets over the past three seasons.

Marshall lowered his Cactus League ERA to 0.69 on March 13 with four scoreless innings against the Mariners. Right-hander Chad Gaudin, once a serious contender for the fifth spot, was roughed up the same day by the Angels, and his ERA rose to 10.38.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The Cubs added to their inventory of infielders by signing veteran Esteban German to a minor league contract and giving him an invite to camp as a non-roster man. German can play all of the infield spots (as well as the outfield), and the Cubs see him as a possible backup to 3B Aramis Ramirez. Earlier this spring, the Cubs signed veteran 3B Corey Koskie to a minor league deal, and he played for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic. Now that Canada is finished, the Cubs can get a good look at Koskie. It's likely both German and Koskie will open the season at Class AAA Iowa.

--INF Aaron Miles was shut down for a few days because of soreness in his right shoulder. Both Miles and the Cubs said it was nothing serious. Originally, the Cubs thought Miles overused the shoulder while playing second base, third base and shortstop, but he said he bruised it diving into a base while trying to avoid a tag.

--RHP Carlos Marmol rejoined the Cubs after pitching for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic and giving up the winning runs as the Dominican was eliminated from WBC play. Marmol will continue competing with RHP Kevin Gregg for the closer's job. He professed not to be affected by the WBC loss. Marmol bounced back from a midseason slump last year.

--RHP Rich Harden pronounced himself OK after his first outing of the spring. He threw 25 pitches March 10 against the Mariners. The Cubs have gone slowly with Harden this spring because of his history of shoulder problems, but they insist he'll be ready to start the fourth game of the regular season.

--With Cs Paul Bako and Koyie Hill both struggling at the plate during spring training, veteran C Mark Johnson has suddenly jumped into the picture to back up Geovany Soto. Johnson came up with the White Sox in 1998, and he played in 10 games for the Cardinals last year after not seeing any major league action for three seasons. Johnson, 33, was in camp with the Cubs in 2005, and he spent that season with their Class AAA Iowa farm team. Piniella said he may have a better idea on the backup catcher by March 22.

BY THE NUMBERS: 110 -- Batters fanned by Cubs pitchers through the first 15 Cactus League games. That was most in the NL and second to the White Sox in the majors. Last season, Cubs pitchers led the majors in strikeouts for the eighth consecutive season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

HE SAID IT: "I'm ready to go. I'm 85, 90 percent and looking forward to the season." -- Zambrano, on being named the Opening Day starter.

-- THE SPORTS XCHANGE

CUBS REDUCE SPRING ROSTER TO 45 PLAYERS
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

MESA, AZ – The Chicago Cubs today sent nine players to minor league camp, reducing their spring roster from 54 to 45 players.

Right-handed pitchers Mitch Atkins, Justin Berg and Jeff Stevens were optioned to Triple-A Iowa. Righthander Marcos Mateo was optioned to Double-A Tennessee.

Five non-roster invitees have been assigned to minor league camp: catcher Welington Castillo, infielders Darwin Barney and Luis Rivas and outfielders Doug Deeds and Jason Dubois.

Chicago's spring roster of 45 players consists of 22 pitchers (five non-roster invitees), four catchers (one non-roster invitee), 10 infielders (four non-roster invitees) and nine outfielders (one non-roster invitee).

--CUBS MEDIA RELATIONS

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