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Cubs spring training preview: Pitching

Ryan Dempster has averaged 207 1/3 innings a season since moving into the rotation in 2008. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

If pitching truly is 80 percent of the game of baseball, the Chicago Cubs may know early in the season if they have the right stuff in the rotation and bullpen to compete.

General manager Jim Hendry sent four prospects and minor-league veteran Sam Fuld to the Tampa Bay Rays for pitcher Matt Garza. The result of the trade replenishes the staff with a strong arm that can replace Ted Lilly, who was traded to the Dodgers last July. Garza, 27, has the potential to win 17-20 games as he moves from the toughest division in baseball, the American League East, into the competitive National League Central.

Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster complete the first three rotation spots for the Cubs. Although Zambrano had been the staff ace through 2007, it has been Dempster along with the departed Lilly who did the heavy lifting in the past three seasons. Dempster, since giving up the closer's role after the 2007 season, has averaged 207 1/3 innings and a shade over 14 wins per season. The 33-year-old also is one of the main leaders on the Cubs. His presence brings a togetherness in the clubhouse on a daily basis.

Most will predict that as Zambrano goes so go the Cubs chances of winning their division. If the last two months of the 2010 season are any indication that he is back to being his old self, then 15 wins, 200-plus innings and another sub-4.00 ERA should be in store for Zambrano, who is listed at 29 years old. He showed everyone, including the front office, that he could pitch a solid six or seven innings without the benefit of a 94-mph fastball. Zambrano was the ultimate pitcher in the last two months of 2010, showing great command of his changeup, split finger and slider while topping out between 89 and 91 mph with the fastball.

Zambrano went 8-0 after returning from the restricted list in August. That type of pitching is a must for the Cubs to compete. Forty-five to 50 wins total for the top three pitchers is essential for the Cubs to play meaningful baseball in late September.

The rest of the rotation is almost an open audition. Although Randy Wells and Carlos Silva were in the rotation in 2010, nothing is promised to them as spring training opens Monday for pitchers and catchers. Silva was one of the top pitchers in the National League before the All-Star break. He began the season 8-0 with a 2.93 ERA in his first 11 starts. After that it was downhill. His problems began with an irregular heartbeat. He left his Aug. 1 start against the Colorado Rockies and went on the disabled list. Silva had a cardiac ablation procedure to correct the heartbeat on Aug. 9. He then missed five weeks and made one start before skipping the rest of the season with elbow tendinitis.

Wells, who was a revelation for the Cubs in 2009, had a tough sophomore season, posting an 8-14 record after winning 12 his rookie season. Wells and Silva will be pushed by youngsters and veterans alike. Andrew Cashner will get a shot at one of the spots as will lefty James Russell. Both spent most of the last season in the bullpen. Veterans Todd Wellemeyer and Braden Looper signed minor-league contracts that are not guaranteed. They will battle with Cashner, Russell, Silva, Wells and Casey Coleman for the fourth and fifth rotation spots.

The Cubs' bullpen looks solid at the start of spring training. Veterans Kerry Wood and Sean Marshall will set up intimidating closer Carlos Marmol. Right-hander Jeff Samardzija will get a long look for a spot in the bullpen. Samardzija, who bounced around the bullpen and rotation the past few years, is out of options and must make the team or be subject to waivers.

If Russell doesn't make the rotation, he and Scott Maine give the Cubs some good left-handed depth behind Marshall. Maine impressed the Cubs enough late last season that they feel he can handle the second or third lefty role if Russell is moved into the rotation. John Grabow, returning from knee surgery, hopes to be the quality left-hander that he was in Pittsburgh. Minor leaguers Chris Carpenter and Jay Jackson will get a long look, too. Both have strong arms and can either start or relieve.

As spring training begins, the Cubs have a lot of pitching depth. The question is how deep does the quality run and will the staff have what it takes to contend with the Reds, Brewers and Cardinals in 2011?