CHICAGO -- Since 2002, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior had been projected as parts of the Cubs' starting rotation. Not anymore. Prior is the San Diego Padres' project, and while Wood is still a Cub, he's competing for the closer's job. But that's next week's story.
The focus today is Chicago's 2008 rotation, and the candidates include a more humble Carlos Zambrano, a relaxed Ted Lilly, a more experienced Rich Hill, a familiar Jon Lieber, an experimental Ryan Dempster, a puzzling Jason Marquis and youngsters Sean Marshall and Sean Gallagher.
And they could combine to make the rotation better than a year ago, when Cubs starters compiled a 4.19 ERA, second-best in the National League.
Let's start with Zambrano. The right-hander is coming off a season in which he established career highs in wins and starts with an 18-13 record and 3.95 ERA. Big Z says he's no longer making predictions about how he'll do -- remember last year's bold boast that he would win the Cy Young and take the team to the World Series? -- but is focused on the job ahead.
"Last year was the only one I predicted something, and it was a mistake," Zambrano said. "Anybody can make a mistake. Every man, every human being makes a mistake. You learn from the mistakes. This year, the only thing I want to do is win the first game, and then the second game, and go game by game. That's my mentality right now."
What should help his focus is that he doesn't have to worry about his contract situation, which was resolved Aug. 17 when he signed a five-year, $91.5 million extension.
What the Cubs want is less talk, more consistency. They don't need the roller-coaster ride that Zambrano took them on when he was 5-1 with a 1.38 ERA in July, then 0-4 with a 7.06 ERA in August.
Lilly has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder after his less-than-memorable performance in Game 2 of the National League Division Series last postseason: He gave up six runs on seven hits and four walks over 3 1/3 innings to Arizona. What was encouraging was how well he did in his first year back in the National League since 1999. The lefty's 15 wins were the most by a Cubs southpaw since Greg Hibbard won 15 in 1993.
Lilly was a stopper, posting a 9-1 record and 3.71 ERA after a Cubs loss. There was some concern about how the fly-ball pitcher would do at Wrigley Field, and he did give up a team-high 19 homers over 19 games there, but also posted a 9-5 record and 3.87 ERA at home. On the road, Lilly was 6-3 with a 3.76 ERA.
He was a good influence on Hill, another lefty, who is coming off his first full season in the big leagues. Hill set career highs in wins (11), strikeouts and innings pitched (195), and his 183 K's led the team. Asked when he started getting excited about the '08 season, Hill said it was as soon as the playoffs were over. The Cubs' NLDS may have lasted just three games, but Hill benefited.
"It put a lot of experience under our belt, that's what it did," Hill said.
Lieber, who signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal in January, brings a high level of experience in his return to the Cubs.
Lieber also is the Cubs' last 20-game winner, posting a 20-6 record in 2001. He compiled a 48-36 record in 121 starts for Chicago, and he has a career 29-18 record at Wrigley Field.
However, he has missed time the past two seasons with Philadelphia because of non-arm-related injuries, and appeared in just 14 games in 2007. Hendry and Lieber both say the right-hander is healthy and ready to go.
Dempster is just as eager, as he tries to return to the rotation for the first time since 2005. That season, he was a starter for six games before he switched to closer duties.
"That's probably the most pressing decision we have to make," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said about Dempster's status.
"It's not going to be easy," Dempster said. "It's going from 70 innings a year to 200, hopefully 220 or so. The most important thing is my arm feels good. It's a little bit different, but at the same time it's building up endurance and hopefully ready to go right out of the gate."
There's no turning back.
"I'm going to do a good job at it," Dempster said. "It's not being cocky -- I just feel I've worked entirely too hard this offseason physically, mentally. It's not going to be easy, not a lot of guys do it. Physically, I'm in as good shape as I've been in my life."
Marquis is an enigma. For the second straight year, he struggled in the second half, posting a 5.73 ERA after the break. He had gone 6-5 with a 3.67 ERA in the first half.
"I really don't know what happened," Piniella said about Marquis. "The disturbing thing about it is it happened the year before in St. Louis. We have to figure out how we can help him finish up the season strong."
Adding Lieber means there will be competition in Spring Training, with Marshall and Gallagher also expected to get good looks this spring. The Cubs went to camp last season thinking Prior, Wade Miller and Angel Guzman could contribute as starters, but Prior never pitched beyond Cactus League, Miller made more Minor League rehab starts than appearances in the Majors and Guzman ended the year needing Tommy John surgery on his elbow.
"We're trying to get as much volume as we can, depth-wise, in the rotation to make it more competitive in camp," Hendry said when the Cubs announced the Lieber signing.
It will be an interesting spring.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.