"The competition starts in earnest about this time, it really does," Piniella said. "And you know what? They're all throwing well."
"I know there's a lot of talk about it," Dempster said of the so-called battle, "but I don't concern myself with that. If I take care of what I need to take care of, and work hard and continue to go out there to get ready for the season, things have a way of working themselves out, and I'm just happy to have the opportunity."
By going deeper in games, Dempster is able to go through the batting order more than once.
"Now, you're doing what a starting pitcher does," he said. "Early in spring, when you're throwing one or two innings, you don't get to face a guy a lot. You don't get to pitch a whole lot. It's nice to extend yourself."
Dempster is trying to make the conversion back to the rotation after spending the last three seasons as the Cubs closer.
"I always felt like I was a pretty darn good starter before I got hurt," said Dempster, who had Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery on his right elbow in August 2003. "I got hurt and haven't had a chance to start for a full season since then. It's just believing in myself and my ability and knowing what I need to do. I'm healthy now and feel great.
"Some teams have to go out and trade or sign a starting pitcher, and we had one. He just happened to be pitching in the back end of the bullpen."
Dempster has impressed the Cubs with his commitment to starting.
"No question -- he wants it badly," Piniella said. "He came to camp in really good shape, he's maintained it, and he's worked hard, and he's enthused and excited about the prospect of starting. We told him we were committed to giving him that opportunity, and that's exactly what's happened."
Start me up: Piniella would like Daryle Ward to get more at-bats this season and be able to use him as a sub for first baseman Derrek Lee or right fielder Kosuke Fukudome. Last season, Ward appeared in 79 games and totaled 110 at-bats.
"We can talk about all the at-bats in the world," Piniella said. "We have to keep [Ward] healthy. We're going to have to rest these people, and with Ward we get a nice bat in the lineup."
Ward, bothered by injuries to his calf, hip and thumb last year, went 4-for-4 with three RBIs on Sunday. He knows he has to keep his conditioning up.
"I'll do the best I can to get on the field," said Ward, who joked he may have to "butter up" the manager to get more playing time. Ward knows all about favors in baseball. He received a new watch from Lieber, who wanted No. 32 back. Ward is now wearing No. 33 and a very nice timepiece.
"Butter up?" Piniella said, laughing. "I like Snickers bars, and Babe Ruth [candy bars]. I even like a Hershey bar."
"That's just talk," Ward said of the buttering. "I think our relationship is better this year. Last year, it was a little nervous.
"All the guys know [Piniella], and we like him. You can always talk to him -- he'll let you know what's on his mind. He's honest with you, and whether you're going to play. As a man you can accept that."
Center of attention: Felix Pie has looked solid in center and has the edge in the battle for the starting center-field job over Sam Fuld.
"Fuld, he's struggling," Piniella said. "He's showing the effects of a first Major League camp. It's an adjustment period for him. He's been pressing a little bit."
Pie delivered a two-run single with one out on Saturday and went 3-for-4 on Sunday with a double, two singles and a walk.
"He's opened up ground on Sam," Piniella said. "Remember now, this is Sammy's first Major League camp, and Pie has been here three, four years. It's a big difference. There's a big, big separation in experience, and it's showing."
Still, Pie has some work to do.
"We'd like to see him get on base a little more, hit the ball to left field occasionally, those sort of things that make you put the ball in play more, cut down on strikeouts," Piniella said. "He's doing a fine job. He's played well."
Extra bases: Carlos Zambrano will start on Tuesday to avoid facing the Brewers both Monday and again on Opening Day, March 31. Rich Hill is expected to open the season at No. 4 in the rotation and would miss Milwaukee in the first regular-season series. ... Piniella isn't worried about Alfonso Soriano only running at 85 percent this spring. "We haven't asked him to run yet," Piniella said. "I would think a week to 10 days from now, he's going to have to try it." ... Eric Patterson had three hits, including his first spring homer Sunday, a two-run shot, in the ninth, and Micah Hoffpauir had three hits: a single, a double and a triple. ... The Cubs Wives will host the 11th annual food drive to benefit Paz de Cristo on March 14 at HoHoKam Park. The first 400 fans who make a donation of 10 non-perishable food items or $20 will have the opportunity to randomly select a Cubs autographed baseball grab bag featuring former and current Cubs.
On deck: Second baseman Mark DeRosa is expected to make his Cactus League debut on Monday when the Cubs travel to Maryvale to face the Milwaukee Brewers at 3:05 p.m. CT. Left-hander Rich Hill will make his third spring appearance, but first start.