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Cubs could have more answers than questions

Veteran Reed Johns(left) rookie DarwBarney look be playing their way onCubs’ Opening Day roster. | AP

Veteran Reed Johnson (left) and rookie Darwin Barney look to be playing their way onto the Cubs’ Opening Day roster. | AP

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Updated: July 1, 2011 12:16AM



PHOENIX — It’s two weeks from Opening Day . . . do you know where your Chicago Cubs are? Who they are?

Do the Cubs?

‘‘Oh, yeah, we’ve got all the decisions made,’’ manager Mike Quade cracked. ‘‘Heck, no.’’

Quade and the brass technically might have a few decisions left at the end of the bench and on the pitching staff, but barring injuries, a lot of things are already starting to come into focus more than a month into the Cubs’ inaugural Camp Q.

For one thing, the only real question left in the rotation might involve whether anyone in baseball the next week or two has a big enough appetite for pitching to entertain trade talks for Carlos Silva — and how much the Cubs might be willing to throw into the pot to make a deal happen.

Randy Wells still needs to take care of business in his next couple of starts, but he has shown team officials what they wanted to see out of the 2009 rookie surprise, who got a little full of himself during a disappointing 2010. He leads the Cactus League with a 1.29 ERA.

Assuming that means there’s one opening left in the rotation, Silva might be third in line for it, behind second-year top gun Andrew Cashner and veteran plugger Braden Looper. No guarantees on how that will play out, but Cashner’s the guy the Cubs wanted to see win one of those jobs before camp ever opened, and you can count him in if he gets even slightly more efficient as he finishes up this spring.

That could make Looper a long man and emergency starter in the bullpen, which might be the strength of this team if Kerry Wood — whose breaking stuff, including a new cutter, has been as good as anyone’s in camp — stays healthy and lefty John Grabow regains his form.

What else have we’ve learned, and what’s left to determine?

◆ Veteran outfielder Reed Johnson, who homered Thursday against the Oakland Athletics, and rookie infielder Darwin Barney are pulling away in races for the last two bench jobs. Barney has all but wrapped up a job as his main competition, Augie Ojeda, struggles to return to the field because of nearly two weeks of back problems.

◆ If the bullpen is the team strength on paper, the key to the Cubs doing any better than .500 — which is roughly what the Vegas oddsmakers predict — could come down to what Wells and Carlos Zambrano do.

Wells, Zambrano (second with a 1.38 ERA) and Opening Day starter Ryan Dempster (2.00) all are among the best performers in the 15-team Cactus League, a major feat considering the notoriously hitter-friendly conditions in Arizona.

‘‘Everybody talked about how the games don’t mean anything, but it’s important to try to play winning baseball,’’ said Dempster, who pitched an impressive six innings Thursday. ‘‘No matter what it means in the grand scheme of things, you teach yourself how to get out of situations if you’re a pitcher or how to win ballgames.’’

Maybe the most important thing for the rotation is how Zambrano goes. Cubs insiders believe (take a deep breath) that this ‘‘I’m cured’’ business might finally be sticking with the Big Z. They should have a better idea sometime around June 20, 21 or 22, assuming Zambrano is scheduled to start one of those games against the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field.

◆ As for the leadoff spot, who cares? Again, it’s not as if the Cubs are missing a key ingredient that 25 other teams have. And how they mix and match there won’t have nearly the impact as whether they can get stability and production from 3-4-5. Quade isn’t ruling out Starlin Castro eventually taking over leadoff.

‘‘The lineup is evolving,’’ he said.

For now, the two-week sprint for firming up the roster and performances is on.

‘‘Now’s the time to pick it up,’’ Dempster said. ‘‘The season’s going to be here before we know it. We’ve got to be ready.’’



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