MLB Insiders: Chicago Cubs

The Pirates open the 2011 season with a three-game series at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Pittsburgh's opening day starter will be right-hander Kevin Correia. The Cubs will counter with right-hander Ryan Dempster.

The forecast is for rain and maybe some snow flurries when the Pirates and Cubs start the season Friday.

The Pirates went 57-105 a year ago, their 18th straight losing season. Of course, 10 of Pittsburgh's wins came against the Cubs.

"They always give us a good fight," said Ryan Dempster, who will start for the Cubs against Pittsburgh's Kevin Correia.

Everybody's optimistic in spring training, even at the end. Cubs manager Mike Quade said he had a couple of reasons for feeling so good as the Cubs got set to head north.

"I'm optimistic, very optimistic, and it starts with pitching," said Quade, entering his first full year as a major league skipper. "If you've got good pitching, and I think we do, there's no reason not to be optimistic, and I don't care what anybody else says. We're going to lean heavily on that."

The Cubs set their rotation last week, with Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Garza topping the staff and starting the three home games against Pittsburgh this weekend. No. 4 starter Randy Wells had as good a spring as anyone on the team. And the Cubs awarded the fifth spot to second-year man Andrew Cashner, who beat out veteran Carlos Silva.

Silva paved his way out of town and off the team with critical comments about Cubs pitching coach Mark Riggins. Management offered Silva a chance to go to the minor leagues, but after GM Jim Hendry heard about Silva saying Riggins wasn't "straight" with him on the team's plans, Hendry released Silva.

There's another reason for Quade's optimism: Except for a few minor aches and pains, the Cubs are healthy heading into the regular season. That, and the Cubs tightened up some sloppy baseball to have a strong second half of the Cactus League season.

"I liked the improvement I saw as we went on," Quade said. "If you combine what I saw work-wise, game-wise, we get through that little week of not very good baseball early, and I've seen improvement in so many areas that I'm happy with. Maybe the most important thing, we're healthy. Knock on wood. I'd just as soon get on the plane and get out of here because we're healthy. There's a lot of clubs that aren't. That's a huge plus for this team."

* RHP Matt Garza was only too happy to get out of Arizona, where he finished the Cactus League season 1-4 with a 10.38 ERA. "My first year in Arizona, and it (stinks)," he said. "I don't care about the travel (easier in Arizona than Florida). It (stinks) here. It's so dry, but whatever. Now it's time to go to Chicago where there's a little more moisture in the air." Garza, whom the Cubs obtained in the offseason in a trade with Tampa Bay, also pitched for Minnesota. Both the Rays and Twins train in Florida. The temperature is expected to be in the 40s Sunday when Garza pitches at Wrigley Field.

* CF Marlon Byrd sat out the final exhibition game because of what manager Mike Quade described as "a little bit of a stiff back." Byrd hit .431 in the Cactus League, and Quade said he will be ready to go Friday, when the Cubs open the season at home against Pittsburgh. "He had a great spring," Quade said. "He swung the bat well. His defense speaks for itself."

* C Koyie Hill will be the backup catcher despite an .031 (1-for-32) spring batting average. The Cubs optioned catching prospect Welington Castillo to Class AAA (Des Moines) Iowa and put Max Ramirez on waivers. Ramirez cleared waivers Wednesday, and the Cubs sent him outright to Iowa. Quade said the pitchers like throwing to Hill and that he provides a valuable leadership role in the clubhouse.

* INF Darwin Barney has a shot at starting the home opener. Barney, a rookie who played in 30 games for the Cubs last year, forced his way into more playing time with a good spring. He batted .340 in the Cactus League and supplanted Blake DeWitt on the depth chart. DeWitt will back up at second and third, while Barney and Jeff Baker will be the starters at second.

* RF Kosuke Fukudome batted only .173 in the spring, but manager Mike Quade said he's not worried. He cited Fukudome's career .368 on-base percentage as what makes him an attractive candidate to lead off on days he plays. "He's taking pitches," Quade said. "He's seeing pitches. He's somebody that I don't worry about putting up numbers."

* RHP Andrew Cashner, the team's No. 5 starter, did not take the team charter to Chicago on Wednesday. Instead, he was scheduled to pitch in a minor league game Thursday and then fly to Chicago.

By The Numbers: 1.29—RHP Randy Wells' ERA (two earned runs over 14 innings) in his first four spring games, virtually assuring him of keeping the No. 4 spot in the rotation.

Quote To Note: "He hasn't earned the right to figure he's going to hit anywhere, although he hit .300 in the No. 2 hole. I'm smart enough to say 'I'll take .300 in the two-hole again.'" —Manager Mike Quade, on where second-year SS Starlin Castro will hit.

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