Can Ryan Dempster rebound? That's one of the things to watch this spring.
"I'm not worried about it at all," Dempster said. "I feel like I'm in great shape. My arm feels good and healthy. I just expect to go out and do my job like I always have."
The right-hander said he was fatigued and frustrated at the end of the 2006 season. After leading the National League in save percentage in 2005, his first season as a closer, Dempster struggled to save 24 of 33 games in 2006. He started the year well, carrying over a consecutive-saves streak from 2005, and converted a club-record 26 straight save opportunities (Aug. 2, 2005 to May 1, 2006). But it was tough at the end, and he was 0-2 with a 6.57 ERA in the final month of play.
"I'm a professional big-league ballplayer, but I found myself not preparing and I let a lot of things go," Dempster said. "I used to ride the bike to the ballpark or run 25, 30 minutes. The end of the season couldn't come fast enough. You're going to Morton's and having a nice steak and all those potatoes and all that kind of stuff afterwards, it quickly piled up in a hurry."
It wasn't just the Cubs' 96-loss season or his personal performance that weighed on Dempster.
"Aside from winning and losing, Glendon Rusch is a close friend of mine and [Derrek Lee], what he was going through was tough," Dempster said of Rusch, diagnosed with a blood clot, and Lee, whose daughter lost vision in one eye. "It's a learning experience, and you learn how to deal with those things better."
And there were times at the end of the season when Dempster expected things to go wrong.
"Yeah, sometimes I did, to be honest," he said. "You'd go out there, and we weren't having a lot of wins. It was tough. You're out there losing six out of every seven games. I put too much pressure on myself to get the job done. That's not me. I was trying to be too perfect. Hopefully, I can go out and get the job done."
Now, Sundays are good days for Dempster. That's when he can eat whatever he wants. Monday through Saturday, Dempster eats the meals delivered to his home. Sticking to specific foods and portion sizes has resulted in a much thinner pitcher in Cubs camp. But will going from a waist size of 38 to 34 make him a better pitcher?
"I'm sure it's just like anybody else here," Dempster said of his offseason diet plan. "I cut out a lot of stuff that's bad for you. I just eat healthy -- grilled instead of fried. I started having meals delivered to my house. It's amazing when you cook your own food at home what the difference is."
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The difference is noticeable. He's had to cinch up his pants at the waist.
"I try to eat as healthy as I can Monday through Saturday, and on Sunday, I'll eat whatever I want," he said. "If I want 20 cookies on Sunday, I'll eat them all on Sunday."
He feels more fit, fresh, and can tell the difference doing early drills in camp. But changing his eating habits wasn't all Dempster did this winter.
"I worked out really hard, too," he said. "I expanded my gym in my house. I had a guy come out five days a week, and I really busted my tail."
Training in the higher altitude in Denver helped. He did more running, circuit training, worked on strengthening his core.
"Whether that translates into anything in the season, we'll see," he said. "They always say if you feel better, you perform better."
Dempster's success depends on whether he can locate his fastball.
"It's a mind-set for me," he said. "It's not so much mechanically, but it's mind-set. Just be aggressive. If I'm aggressive, I'll walk one guy a week. If not, I'll walk one guy a game.
"I just have to be attacking, not picking at corners," he said. "It's not like I'm throwing balls at guys' heads and down in the dirt. I'm usually just missing. For me, I just have to trust my stuff more."
The Cubs have a solid supporting cast in the bullpen in veterans Scott Eyre and Bob Howry, and it could get a boost if Kerry Wood can make the switch to reliever. But if it's the ninth inning and the Cubs have a one-run lead, it will be up to Dempster. Cubs manager Lou Piniella said he's sticking with the right-hander. Did Dempster ever question himself last season?
"I've always felt ready," he said. "I think sometimes when you don't get a chance to go back out there when a save situation comes up, those are the times when you wonder -- not necessarily doubt yourself -- but you wonder. It's a confidence thing. This game is all about confidence and getting on a roll. You go out and get on a roll and good things happen. I'm not going to worry about it. I feel great, and I'm just going to go out there and do my job."
The theme this spring could be: new year, new team, new attitude. The dreadful 2006 season is behind them.
"That's the good part about Dick Clark," Dempster said. "He drops that ball in Times Square -- or Ryan Seacrest or whoever does it now. It's a new year. [Last year] is over with. For me, that's water under the bridge. I just focus and go ahead with this year."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.