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Fielding crucial if Cubs are to duplicate D-Backs’ unlikely resurgence

PITTSBURGH - JULY 09:  StarlCastro #13 Chicago Cubs fields ground ball against Pittsburgh Pirates during game July 9 2011

PITTSBURGH - JULY 09: Starlin Castro #13 of the Chicago Cubs fields a ground ball against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the game on July 9, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images) R:\Merlin\Getty_Photos\118653419.jpg

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Updated: April 19, 2012 8:22AM

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs have talked since the start of spring training about winning now, as in this year — as in going from two lousy seasons and offseason upheaval to contending in one major leap.

“You look at the [Arizona] Diamondbacks, what they did last year, and you see what can happen,’’ veteran Alfonso Soriano said early in camp. “We’ve got some good guys in here and we all care about the same thing. And if we stay healthy, we could surprise some people.’’

Nobody surprised baseball more last year than the Diamondbacks, who pulled off the greatest one-year improvement in the National League since 2000 — 29 games — after their own pair of miserable seasons to win their division.

Insiders say even those in the D-Backs’ own front office and on the field staff anticipated a rebuilding year in 2011.

But then came a Cy Young-caliber season from Ian Kennedy, a huge improvement in late-inning pitching, a significantly better fielding performance and a 48-31 record in games decided by one or two runs.

“Could it happen [in Chicago]?’’ said Alan Trammell, the Cubs’ bench coach for four seasons before leaving for Arizona to work with former teammate Kirk Gibson in the same capacity. “Absolutely.

“Is anybody picking them, or did anybody pick us last year? Hell, no.’’

But as Soriano would say: Look at the Diamondbacks. Because even Trammell’s characteristic upbeat outlook comes with one huge caveat for any Arizona-inspired optimism on the North Side:

“Without catching the ball, it ain’t going to happen,’’ he said.

Now look at the Cubs, and try not to wince.

“You’ve got to catch the ball, and we did last year. We did a heck of a job there,’’ Trammell said. “We were in the top five [in NL fielding]. And I’m assuming the Cubs were in the bottom five.’’

Not just bottom five. Last. In the majors. By a wide margin.

Even if the Cubs could score a few more runs this year and raise the starting pitching from last in the league to the middle of the pack — and even if they get the requisite Cy Young-type year from Matt Garza — the rise through the NL Central won’t come without eye-popping improvement in the field.

“It’s hard enough as it is, but you can’t give up extra outs and expect to win,’’ said Trammell, whose D-Backs wouldn’t have had a prayer of going 27-15 in their one-run games last year otherwise.

“And our bullpen was tremendous. We went from one of the worst bullpens in the last 50 years to one of the best in baseball [with a 1.02 improvement in pen ERA],’’ he said. “So again we weren’t giving up leads late in the game, which is demoralizing.’’

For the Cubs, the bullpen is a work in progress — emphasis on work, especially with late-inning issues to solve with closer Carlos Marmol.

And the fielding? They appear to have upgraded at third base, and right field is at least as good as it was the last few years. But Soriano still struggles in left. And shortstop Starlin Castro’s development could be the key after a major-league-high 29 errors last year.

With three weeks to go until Opening Day, Castro has only one error, and new manager Dale Sveum sounded encouraged about what he’s seen so far.

“I don’t see us doing a whole lot of bad things defensively,’’ Sveum said. “The infield play has actually been pretty good, really. We’ve actually made some good plays, made the routine plays, turned double plays; the positioning’s been good. I think we’ve had a few hiccups in the first 12 games or so, but I can’t complain about the defense we’ve played so far.’’

So there’s a chance?

“People are going to doubt,’’ Trammell said. “As a player or a coaching staff that doesn’t bother you. . . . When we won 16 out of 18 in May, then you start believing. That’s the confidence.’’

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