Spring training can be a tedious time, especially in the days before the exhibition games begin. So the Cubs livened things up with a bunting "tournament" involving both pitchers and position players.
A total of 64 Cubs players, plus a strength coach and manager Dale Sveum (just to fill out the field to 64) began taking part in a tournament, complete with an NCAA basketball-style bracket. The tourney was to end with a final between a pitcher and a position player.
The tourney is for fun, to be sure, but there's a serious purpose, too: getting a fundamentally poor team from 2011 to improve on one area of the game.
"You get a lot of everybody doing a lot of things and making sure their technique is right and all that kind of stuff," Sveum said. "So it adds a lot to the whole game. That's the process. It's nice to have the fun with it, too. That breaks things up a little bit, especially the starting pitchers that are going to be bunting. They start really grinding on it and understanding that the mechanics have to be right and all that to pull off some of these better bunts."
The bunting tournament will play out over the next week of spring training. Among the pitchers, Ryan Dempster, Randy Wells and Casey Coleman are among the favorite. Position players are led by speedy outfielder Tony Campana.
"I think it's pretty good idea," Campana said. "It's fun. You never see anybody practice bunting. There are all kinds of people out there practicing to see how easy or how hard it is to get bunts down. It does have a purpose. There are people out there working on it."
Cubs Notes & Quotes
RHP Kerry Wood is the Cubs' sole setup man, according to manager Dale Sveum. The subject came up when Sveum was asked who would be the left-handed setup man, replacing Sean Marshall, who was traded in December. "I think we have our setup guy in Kerry Wood," Sveum said. "I think we're OK there."
That doesn't mean the Cubs won't have a left-handed presence out of the pen. Holdover James Russell appears to have a job, with non-roster man Trever Miller battling with Scott Maine and John Gaub, who has had back spasms early in camp.
RHP Carlos Marmol and the Cubs say he will junk a cut fastball he had thrown last year, a season in which he blew 10 saves in 44 chances. Instead, Marmol will go back to relying on his tried-and-true slider and fastball. Marmol's slider has been an almost unhittable pitch when it's on.
"I'm going to get rid of that for sure," Marmol said. "You're not going to see that. It didn't work. It didn't work last year." Marmol also admitted that he had lost confidence last season.
SS Starlin Castro arrived at spring training and addressed a sexual-assault allegation leveled at him last fall. Castro did not talk during the Cubs' fan convention last month, but he came to spring training looking more relaxed.
"I cooperated with the police," he said. "And in talking about that I don't have a whole lot of stuff to say about that. I'm ready to play baseball and will practice very hard to win for this team and win games."
As far as baseball goes, Castro said he is looking forward to batting third in the lineup. He had most of his success hitting first, but the Cubs acquired RF David DeJesus in the offseason to bat leadoff.
1B Bryan LaHair will remain the team's first baseman until further notice, according to manager Dale Sveum. Much has been made of the Cubs' trade for 1B prospect Anthony Rizzo from the San Diego Padres. The Cubs' brass repeatedly has said they'd like Rizzo to get some more polish at Class AAA (Des Moines) Iowa. That means LaHair will get every opportunity to run with the job.
CF Marlon Byrd came to camp bearing a tattoo quoting an excerpt of a Teddy Roosevelt speech, "The Man in the Arena." Said Byrd: "My wife sends me this every year before the season starts, and I read it. I wanted to put it on my arm just as a reminder."
The most famous part of the speech begins: "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena ..." The tattoo may have been Byrd's statement to the critics of the Cubs.
LF Alfonso Soriano reported to camp and said the new Cubs brass has not approached him about a trade despite offseason rumors. Soriano has a no-trade clause in his contract, which runs three more years for $54 million.
"I signed here to try to make the team better and win," he said. "We got a chance to win. I just want to stay here and see this team win a championship. They have not said anything about a trade because I'm here. I don't want to think about if I'm going to get traded in the future or tomorrow or whatever. I got to concentrate on just playing baseball because I have a lot of things to do, and I've got to get ready with my legs, my swing, my defense."
By the Numbers: 60 – The Cubs had 60 sacrifice bunts last season, ranking them 14th in the National League. The Cubs are spending more time on bunting this spring, engaging in a bunting tournament.
Quote to Note: "Is there really that little to talk about right now that you're talking about the bunting competition?" -- RHP Kerry Wood on reporters being curious about the team's bunting tournament.