Fine-tuning a quartet: Four starting pitchers who need big springs

Spring training officially opened Thursday when 12 clubs held workouts for pitchers and catchers. Let the 44-day countdown to opening night begin.

If six-plus weeks of camp sounds like too many, you must not be a starting pitcher who has to slowly build arm strength for the long season. You definitely aren’t a starter seeking a strong spring in your attempt to bounce back from a disappointing 2009.

The quartet below has something else in common: All loom large in their teams’ chances to contend.

Carlos Zambrano, Cubs

The Big Z isn’t quite as large after dropping about 15 pounds and reporting to Arizona with a new, close-cropped haircut. Zambrano needed a change after a season in which he made nearly as much news for his dislike of sit-ups as he did for his pitching.

The Cubs are paying their ace righthander $17.875 million this season to win more than nine games and pitch more than 169 1/3 innings. Zambrano went on the disabled list twice last season, once because of back spasms that were attributed in part to a core that he admitted should have been better-conditioned.

"He’s got a lot of pride so he took to heart what happened last year," pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "We need him to be out there with his good stuff consistently, and I don’t think he was."

Rothschild plans to tweak Zambrano’s spring routine to "refresh him a bit" but said, "There’s only so much you can do as far as using him (in exhibitions). We have to get him ready to start."

Cole Hamels, Phillies

One positive from the Phillies’ failure to win the World Series: Hamels, the darling of the 2008 playoffs, didn’t have to worry about an offseason celebration tour. The lefthander didn’t have much to gloat about after going 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA in the regular season, and 1-2 with a 7.38 in four postseason starts.

This spring, Hamels is expected to work on his curveball and experiment with a cutter, which would be a fourth pitch in his repertoire.

Chad Billingsley, Dodgers

He is only 25 but the righthander is entering his fifth season at a crossroads. Is he the guy who went 0-3 with a 5.16 ERA in his final six outings and was left out of the postseason rotation? Or is he the All-Star who went 9-4 in the first half?

His problems could be partially attributed to a balky left knee that is stressed because of a stiff landing on his delivery. Billingsley also struggles because he loses confidence and lets that affect his performance.

After Billingsley was pummeled by the Phillies in the 2008 NLCS, Dodgers manager Joe Torre was concerned enough to have a heart-to-heart chat with him before last season. Torre’s talk seemed to help, for the first half anyway.

Oliver Perez, Mets

Perez typified the Mets’ misery in ’09. He was lousy from the start after signing a three-year, $36 million deal in the offseason. Perez went on the disabled list in May with a left knee injury, returned in July and continued to struggle. His season ended in late August when he couldn’t make it through the first inning against the Phillies. He had surgery in September.

According to early reports, Perez is throwing free and easy so far. He needs to regain his command after walking 58 in his 66 innings last season.

"The big emphasis this spring will be on throwing strikes," Mets manager Jerry Manuel said. "If he can do that, being lefthanded gives him a tremendous opportunity to be productive for us in our ballpark. It’s a matter of us getting him to be somewhat consistent."

They have 44 days to try.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

Spring training officially opened Thursday when 12 clubs held workouts for pitchers and catchers. Let the 44-day countdown to opening night begin.

If six-plus weeks of camp sounds like too many, you must not be a starting pitcher who has to slowly build arm strength for the long season. You definitely aren’t a starter seeking a strong spring in your attempt to bounce back from a disappointing 2009.

The quartet below has something else in common: All loom large in their teams’ chances to contend.

Carlos Zambrano, Cubs

The Big Z isn’t quite as large after dropping about 15 pounds and reporting to Arizona with a new, close-cropped haircut. Zambrano needed a change after a season in which he made nearly as much news for his dislike of sit-ups as he did for his pitching.

The Cubs are paying their ace righthander $17.875 million this season to win more than nine games and pitch more than 169 1/3 innings. Zambrano went on the disabled list twice last season, once because of back spasms that were attributed in part to a core that he admitted should have been better-conditioned.

"He’s got a lot of pride so he took to heart what happened last year," pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "We need him to be out there with his good stuff consistently, and I don’t think he was."

Rothschild plans to tweak Zambrano’s spring routine to "refresh him a bit" but said, "There’s only so much you can do as far as using him (in exhibitions). We have to get him ready to start."

Cole Hamels, Phillies

One positive from the Phillies’ failure to win the World Series: Hamels, the darling of the 2008 playoffs, didn’t have to worry about an offseason celebration tour. The lefthander didn’t have much to gloat about after going 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA in the regular season, and 1-2 with a 7.38 in four postseason starts.

This spring, Hamels is expected to work on his curveball and experiment with a cutter, which would be a fourth pitch in his repertoire.

Chad Billingsley, Dodgers

He is only 25 but the righthander is entering his fifth season at a crossroads. Is he the guy who went 0-3 with a 5.16 ERA in his final six outings and was left out of the postseason rotation? Or is he the All-Star who went 9-4 in the first half?

His problems could be partially attributed to a balky left knee that is stressed because of a stiff landing on his delivery. Billingsley also struggles because he loses confidence and lets that affect his performance.

After Billingsley was pummeled by the Phillies in the 2008 NLCS, Dodgers manager Joe Torre was concerned enough to have a heart-to-heart chat with him before last season. Torre’s talk seemed to help, for the first half anyway.

Oliver Perez, Mets

Perez typified the Mets’ misery in ’09. He was lousy from the start after signing a three-year, $36 million deal in the offseason. Perez went on the disabled list in May with a left knee injury, returned in July and continued to struggle. His season ended in late August when he couldn’t make it through the first inning against the Phillies. He had surgery in September.

According to early reports, Perez is throwing free and easy so far. He needs to regain his command after walking 58 in his 66 innings last season.

"The big emphasis this spring will be on throwing strikes," Mets manager Jerry Manuel said. "If he can do that, being lefthanded gives him a tremendous opportunity to be productive for us in our ballpark. It’s a matter of us getting him to be somewhat consistent."

They have 44 days to try.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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