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Cubs feel good, despite rash of injuries

Carlos Villanueva

Carlos Villanueva

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Updated: March 25, 2013 12:48PM

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — With one week left before the Cubs open the season in Pittsburgh, about the only things they know for sure are the weather will be cool and their best pitcher will be on the disabled list.

“The one disappointment is [Matt] Garza, really,” said manager Dale Sveum, who won’t have the former 15-game winner in his rotation until at least the first week of May because of a lat strain that wiped out the right-hander’s spring training.

“If we’d have had him Opening Day, that changes things around a little bit, to have three guys like that at the top,” Sveum said, referring to Garza joining Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija and veteran Edwin Jackson. “Then you mix in [Travis] Wood, [Carlos] Villanueva, [Scott] Feldman, and one of them would obviously have been [bolstering] the bullpen.”

For now, the Cubs’ roster is nearly set, with converted second baseman Luis Valbuena starting at third and $2 million gamble Ian Stewart two weeks away from starting a minor-league rehab assignment that essentially will serve as his Cactus League season. That puts his targeted return somewhere near the first of May.

That’s if his quadriceps injury finally allows him to run at game speed — and if his surgically repaired wrist doesn’t become a problem again.

“Yeah, it would have been nice to see Stewart play every day and have a great spring and hit home runs and catch the ball and all that,” Sveum said. “We were hoping more than we were counting on [him]. We signed him, but we weren’t sure. We got to see Valbuena a lot.

“So, knock on wood, if we ended camp right now, we’re better off than some teams that have injury problems.”

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for a team coming off a 101-loss season.

Short of a waiver-wire claim or a Shawn Camp-type signing, what you see is what you get with a week to go before it counts.

Villanueva, who likely would have gone to the bullpen if Garza were healthy, is even more optimistic than Sveum.

“I think we’re ready to compete,” he said. “It’s easy to say. If you ask me, are we going to compete, I’m not going to say, no, we’re going to be in last place. But I really think we do have a chance.”

He needs to be a significant factor if that’s going to happen. And Sveum needs to be right about the offensive boost he expects from left-handed hitter Nate Schierholtz joining lefty-hitting Anthony Rizzo to give the lineup left-right balance and “keep that line moving.”

The Cubs also better hope the longtime scout who said Sunday that right-handed hitter Scott Hairston will be a big factor as power off the bench is right, too.

There’s not much else to suggest much improvement from the moribund offensive output of last year. With Garza out and Scott Baker (elbow) joining him, the pitching doesn’t look as good as it seemed a month ago.

“There’s been a lot said about if we get to the All-Star break and we’re not winning that there’s going to be a fire sale,” Villanueva said. “I don’t want to hear that. That’s why I signed here for more than one year, because I don’t want that to happen. I’m not old, but I’m not young anymore. I’m a veteran guy now, and I want to win.

“I believe we can win. So hopefully I’m right about that and we can surprise a lot of people.”


STRONG LAST IMPRESSION: Left-hander Chris Rusin, who already has been optioned to Class AAA Iowa as the Cubs’ sixth starter, pitched 51/3 scoreless innings in his final big-league spring start. He went 3-0 with a 1.93 ERA. “Today went well numbers-wise, but I walked more guys than [usual],” he said of his three-walk, three-strikeout outing. “Once I figured out I was going to be wild today, I kind of just relied on movement.”

THIRD WATCH: Catcher Steve Clevenger, the presumptive winner of the final bench job, got some versatility training when he entered the game in the seventh at third base. He’s already a known quantity behind the plate and at first base. He doubled home a run in the eighth.

SECOND GRADE: Starlin Castro batted fifth Sunday, but manager Dale Sveum said the shortstop is his No. 2 hitter. “If everybody lives up to their capabilities, hopefully we don’t have to [change] anything,” said Sveum, who batted Castro fifth much of last season to protect cleanup man Alfonso Soriano. “I don’t know if it’s short term or not. I’m just waiting for him to develop a little bit more into that more patient hitter, that guy that doesn’t feel like he has to drive in a run every time somebody’s in scoring position and swinging out of the strike zone.”

BATTLEGROUND STATE: Right-hander Zach Putnam, one of three pitchers left battling for the final bullpen job, entered a 4-0 game with two out in the eighth and runners at second and third. He gave up a line-drive, two-run single before getting the final out.

ON DECK: Giants at Cubs, 3:05 p.m., CSN, Travis Wood vs. Ryan Vogelsong.

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