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Cubs Opening Day outlook

Cubs Opening Day outlook

Just once, the Chicago Cubs would like to get through a Spring Training without having to deal with medical reports.

Cub fans now know where the subscapularis muscle is because of Mark Prior. They know Kerry Wood can bounce back quickly from a slight tear of his medial mensicus. And they know Derrek Lee has a tender shoulder that bruises when the 6-foot-5 first baseman falls.

What's been encouraging this spring is young arms like Angel Guzman, Sean Marshall, Jae Kuk Ryu and Rich Hill. Marshall did so well, he bumped Jerome Williams from the rotation and will be the fourth starter. As much as the Cubs would like All-Stars like Prior and Wood in the mix, there's depth in the system. That's good.

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Cubs manager Dusty Baker didn't have his regular lineup together much this spring because of players participating in the World Baseball Classic, Lee's shoulder injury, and then Lee's absence because of a family emergency. But the Cubs now have a bonafide leadoff hitter in Juan Pierre, a healthy Aramis Ramirez, and some much-needed experience in the bullpen with newcomers Scott Eyre and Bob Howry. And Baker will let kids like Ronny Cedeno and Matt Murton play -- and that's encouraging.

BATTING ORDER
1. Juan Pierre, CF:
Baker has used 19 different leadoff men in the last three seasons. Pierre fills a void that has definitely been a problem. He provides speed and energy, and loves Wrigley Field. Pierre has a career .282 average there.

2. Todd Walker, 2B:
This was a tough decision. All spring, Baker said he would pick either Walker, Jerry Hairston Jr. or Neifi Perez to get most of the playing time. Hairston has better range and speed and is healthy after battling a sore ankle. But on Friday, Baker said Walker will get the nod for the first two games of the season. The left-handed hitting infielder batted .305 last season. Baker will go with the best matchup the rest of the season.

3. Derrek Lee, 1B:
The defending NL batting champ, Lee got off to a great start in the World Baseball Classic, hitting three home runs, but was slowed when he bruised his left shoulder. He is coming off a career year (.335 AVG., 46 HR, 50 2B, 107 RBI) and expecting more.

4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B:
He stuck to his offseason workout program and arrived in Arizona healthy and strong. The Cubs would love to see him play a full season -- 30-plus homers and 90-plus RBIs is not out of the question. Can he avoid nagging leg injuries? We'll see.

5. Jacque Jones, RF:
Embarrassed by last year's .249 average, Jones has worked hard this spring with hitting coach Gene Clines. He also got a refresher course this offseason with hitting guru Tony Gwynn. Jones isn't being counted on to hit 30 homers and has to avoid pulling the ball.

6. Michael Barrett, C:
Barrett may have been hurt by the World Baseball Classic because he didn't get many at-bats. He trained hard this winter to work on his defense, and is in good shape. But his timing may take a while to get going.

7. Matt Murton, LF:
This will be his first full season in the big leagues, and he appears to be ready. The redhead isn't worried about home runs -- they'll come. He's been a solid hitter at every level and handled the promotion to the Majors with ease. He can run, and his defense is getting better.

8. Ronny Cedeno, SS:
Cedeno did hit .300 in his 41 games in the bigs last year, and enters his sophomore season playing a tough position. He'll have no problems on the field. At the plate may be different. Cedeno struggled a little this spring and admitted to thinking too much.

ROTATION
1. Carlos Zambrano, RHP:
This will be Zambrano's second consecutive Opening Day start. He got a head start on the season pitching for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic. He's had a terrific spring, and will likely lead the team again in strikeouts. He has not had an ERA over 4.00 in his young career.

2. Glendon Rusch, LHP:
He bounced from the 'pen to the rotation last year and is willing to do whatever the Cubs ask. With Wood and Prior sidelined, he needs to start. Rusch was 7-7 with a 4.32 ERA in 19 starts last year, and 2-1 with a 5.14 ERA in 27 relief appearances.

3. Greg Maddux, RHP:
This year marks a personal milestone: Maddux turns 40 on April 14. He will be the first 40-year-old Cubs pitcher to start a game since Fergie Jenkins did so on Sept. 9, 1983. Heading into his 20th season, Maddux has 318 wins and 3,052 strikeouts in his career.

4. Sean Marshall, LHP:
Who is this guy? Marshall is the spring surprise. The 6-foot-7 pitcher was 4-4 with a 2.74 ERA in 12 games with Class A Daytona and 0-1 with a 2.52 ERA in four starts at Double-A West Tenn last year. He's impressed the Cubs with his poise and his repertoire of pitches this spring. In 10 1/3 innings in Arizona, he did not allow a run.

5. Jerome Williams, RHP:
The Cubs don't need a fifth starter until April 15, and Williams will open the year as the long man in the pen. The Cubs are waiting for RHPs Prior Wood to return, and there's no timetable for either. Both have shoulder issues.

BULLPEN
Ryan Dempster begins the season as the closer, and having one year under his belt in that role will definitely help. He led the NL in save percentage last year -- not bad for a rookie closer. Dempster has more experienced setup help in RHP Howry and LHP Eyre, both free agent additions. Either one could sub in a save situation if needed. RHP Michael Wuertz, who led the team with 75 appearances last year, had a tough spring but should find his slider again. If RHP Scott Williamson can return to his pre-injury form, the 'pen could be one of the strongest in the NL.

OPENING DELAYED
Prior has a strained subscapularis muscle in his right shoulder (one of the rotator cuff muscles), and was sidelined two weeks. Whether he has to start over or could be ready in May, nobody knows. It's day to day. Wood is rehabbing from arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder in late August, and might be ready in late April. RHP Wade Miller had similar surgery as Wood, but his was in late September. He's about 10 days behind Wood in his rehab program. All three will be in Arizona on Opening Day to continue their rehab programs.

BURNING QUESTION
Can the Cubs get off to a good start without Wood and Prior in the mix? The baseball cliché is that you can never have enough pitching, and the Cubs will test that. You'll likely see one of the youngsters get a chance, and hopefully they'll make it tough to decide who to bump when Wood and Prior do return. Given a choice, the Cubs would rather have the two All-Stars in the rotation. Unfortunately, they don't have a choice.

ON THE RECORD
"It's been 80-some years for the Red Sox, they won. It's been 80-some years for the White Sox and they won. It's been what, 98 for us? I'm a baseball history guy. Usually things go in patterns. There was some stat last year where some guy hit his 400th home run or 300th home run the same day three other people hit their 300th home run. Things happen." -- Eyre on the team's World Series drought, longest in the Majors

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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