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Z could be aced out for Opening Day

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Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Barely three months ago, at the end of last season, Carlos Zambrano called out the Sun-Times for saying he wasn’t the ace of the Cubs’ pitching staff.

‘‘You can count and see if I’m the former ace or I’m still the ace of this team,’’ he said after the seventh of eight straight wins to close his 2010 season. He paused before adding, ‘‘along with all the four [other] guys in the rotation.’’

Late-season winning streaks or not, Zambrano’s place in the pecking order didn’t get any stronger with the Cubs’ trade last week for Matt Garza, who has the credentials to become the dominant pitcher in the 2011 rotation.

Could Garza threaten Zambrano’s streak of six straight Opening Day starts? How would Big Z handle it if he’s not the guy on April 1 against Pittsburgh?

And what about Ryan Dempster, who, based on wins, innings and ERA the last three years, is clearly the top returning starter?

It could make what’s generally a symbolic assignment one of Mike Quade’s biggest early decisions in his first spring training as a big-league manager.

‘‘I have no idea,’’ Quade said of his rotation order to start the season as he and several other Cubs prepared for a luncheon Wednesday at Harry Caray’s downtown restaurant as the annual Cubs Caravan kicked off. ‘‘What I know is I have three great pitchers to choose from. There’s too many variables to look at, but there’s no question that Garza’s in the mix. We’ll take a look at Z, Demp and Garza and see where we go with that. You dodge and duck, but ultimately we’re going to take a look at the schedule and how it sets up. I’ve got to get more familiar with Garza and understand him a little better.

‘‘It’ll be one of those three, barring injury — we know that.’’

A full month remains before spring training, but even Quade says the unofficial clock starts now on planning for 2011. Most of the team convenes for Cubs Convention this week at the downtown Hilton.

If the Opening Day starter decision becomes a problem, it may not be the worst kind to have, especially as it relates to what happens at the back end of the rotation. With three starters capable of 15 wins and 200 innings, it should create stronger competition for the last two spots among second-year Andrew Cashner, 2010 first-half stud Carlos Silva, two-year starter Randy Wells, rookie Casey Coleman, veteran lefty Tom Gorzelanny and possibly even second-year lefty James Russell, who impressed in the bullpen last year. It also depends on who might be left after exploring other trades.

Quade said with four strong lefty candidates for the bullpen (also Sean Marshall, John Grabow and Scott Maine), Russell is the one the organization is talking about competing for a starting job.

And Cashner is readying himself for what team officials think could be a formidable fourth-starter job.

The implications of the Garza trade for the holdovers aren’t lost on guys such as Wells, who followed an impressive rookie season with a disappointing 2010.

But, he said, ‘‘I’m all for winning. I know how special it’d be for this town to have a world championship. I want to be part of it. I don’t want to be the guy that misses out by being selfish. If I have to drag the water up out of the dugout when it rains, to be around it, that’s what I’ll do.’’

Which brings the conversation back to openers, aces, egos and how all of that gets reconciled with merit and matchups to create a successful, if not harmonious, start to what could be an especially big season for many in the organization.

What seems certain is that the Cubs still need a Good-Z season out of Zambrano — closer to his 8-0, 1.41 ERA finish after anger-management counseling than his 3-6, 5.66 start to 2010.

And giving him the ball for a franchise record-tying seventh Opening Day start could help avoid an early wrong-way mind-set.

But Zambrano has won just once on Opening Day. He fell to 1-2, 6.35 in openers with last year’s harbinger-like 16-5 steamer in Atlanta.

Nobody on the staff likely deserves the start more than Dempster, based on performance and the respect he commands in the clubhouse. And Garza brings an intensity and American League East/World Series pedigree that could be especially infectious in front of 40,000 strong in an opener at Wrigley Field.

‘‘It’s good to have a problem like that. Any team would like to have three guys to pick from,’’ catcher Koyie Hill said. ‘‘It’ll be interesting.’’

NOTES: Manager Mike Quade said he’s keeping an open mind about lineups as he prepares for spring training, saying there’s a ‘‘chance for sure’’ that he’ll use a leadoff-by-committee approach that could include Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt.

† The Cubs have reunited with former clubhouse favorite Reed Johnson, signing the outfielder to a minor-league contract and inviting him to spring training.

Koyie Hill agreed to a one-year deal worth $850,000, avoiding arbitration. Five arbitration-eligible Cubs remained unsigned: Matt Garza, Tom Gorzelanny, Carlos Marmol, Geovany Soto and Sean Marshall.

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