MESA, Ariz. -- Jeff Samardzija is hoping he does enough to win the Opening Day assignment, but says a strong start for the team is more important.
Samardzija tuned up Friday, pitching three innings against the Diamondbacks at HoHoKam Stadium. He gave up one run on one hit and three walks. It wasn't his best outing -- he didn't have good command of his fastball and his split wasn't sharp -- but it was another step.
Last spring, Cubs manager Dale Sveum described the right-hander as a "man on a mission" to prove he could be a full-time starter. And now?
"It's the same but he's on a different voyage," Sveum said. "Last year was to prove he could start, and obviously he did that. Now his mission is to be one of the best starting pitchers in baseball."
Samardzija is hoping the Cubs have a better season. At last July's Trade Deadline, the Cubs dealt several veteran players when it was clear the team was no longer in contention.
"I feel like the beginning of this season could be as important as we'll have," Samardzija said. "Spring Training is really big for us, too, just getting this team together and realizing where we want our lineup to be and everything like that. It's very important, very, very important, especially with guys like [Matt] Garza and these different dudes who are about to be free agents.
"We need to show when they're on this team that we're a more capable team to win games and make the playoffs, and go from there," Samardzija said. "That's for us to prove on the field, and as long as we do that, then you can add pieces instead of taking them away, which is where you want to be."
He understands why the front office would make deals as they try to improve the farm system.
"If we're out of it, I doubt they'll keep the whole team together," Samardzija said. "That's not what our plan is. Our plan is to put them in a tough situation on what they want to do halfway through the year and through September and go from there. If we're doing our job and winning ballgames, they'll have a tough decision on what they want to do. That's our job as players on the field."
Clevenger to get first-base experience with Rizzo out
MESA, Ariz. -- When Anthony Rizzo joins Team Italy for the World Baseball Classic, catcher Steve Clevenger will shift to first base. It could help Clevenger win a spot on the 25-man roster.
The Cubs are sorting out their bench options, and most will need to wait until the third-base situation is settled. Ian Stewart is sidelined with a sore left quad, and if he can't go, Luis Valbuena will shift from utility man to starting third baseman.
There's an opening for Clevenger, who made the Opening Day roster last year as the backup catcher. The Cubs are looking for another left-handed bat for the bench.
"He puts himself in the mix," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said of Clevenger, who is to start Saturday at first against the Giants. "You'll start seeing him play a lot more first with Rizzo gone. I'll get him in at third base, maybe even put him at second base in a split-squad game or something.
"If you can have that third catcher to where you can pinch-run and not worry about the other catcher getting hurt, that obviously comes into the mix," Sveum said. "It all depends on what happens at third base -- a lot of these decisions do."
Clevenger batted .201 in 69 games last season with the Cubs, and hit .224 against right-handed pitchers.
"I played infield when I first signed with the Cubs and I feel comfortable doing it, so it's not a big change for me," Clevenger said. I see [Sveum is] trying to do something to help me try to make the team. I don't feel out of whack playing infield at all. I just want to go out there and take my ground balls and get my work in."
He hasn't played outfield since high school.
"How hard is it to catch a fly ball?" Clevenger said, laughing. "We kind of experimented a little bit in practice last year at Wrigley with [coach Dave McKay]. We worked on throwing and everything. It's a little tough at Wrigley at first with the wind and sun. My first day was in right field. I'm like, 'I don't know if I can do this at Wrigley.'"
He isn't worried about finding an infielder's glove. He'll tap into second baseman Darwin Barney's large supply.
The most versatile player in camp is Brent Lillibridge, who has started at first as well. A right-handed hitter, he can play all infield positions and some outfield.
"I wouldn't say you pencil him in [for the Opening Day roster]," Sveum said of Lillibridge, "but he's really our only player in camp who can do the things he can do, and he's had experience of a little bit of everything -- first base, and obviously, the three infield [positions]. He can catch the ball in the outfield and hit a home run, too. It's definitely a strong posibility [that he makes the team]."
Rondon feels good through two outings
MESA, Ariz. -- Hector Rondon, the Cubs' Rule 5 Draft pick, has looked sharp in his two outings. The only question is whether the right-hander can handle two innings of work in a game.
In his two outings, Rondon has given up one hit and struck out two over two innings.
"I feel really good," Rondon said.
"That was pretty nice," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said of Rondon's outing on Thursday against the Athletics. "The ball was coming out of his hand pretty well. He threw a couple real good sliders, and I didn't know he had that good of one and he threw one with a lot of tilt on it. With health, that might be a pretty good steal."
Rondon, who was the Indians' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2009, has been slowed by two elbow injuries.
"He has legitimate stuff," Sveum said. "[Thursday], he was 92, 93 [mph] with a good slider, he threw strikes. He's always been a strike thrower. That's nice to have in your back pocket. The guy's always been a strike thrower, and now that he's completely healthy -- the only kicker is we have to get him to be able to throw two innings."
They want the right-hander to build up arm strength so he can throw two innings before Spring Training ends. He's been limited the last three seasons after undergoing right elbow UCL reconstruction surgery in August 2010. He fractured the same joint during winter ball in Venezuela in '11.
• It's been a lot more entertaining to watch Jorge Soler in person than on video.
Soler, one of the Cubs' top prospects, impressed Cubs manager Dale Sveum with a perfect strike on a throw from right to third base in Thursday's game.
"He doesn't just have a good arm but an accurate arm," Sveum said Friday. "That's an added plus to a guy with the tools. A lot of time, you have the arm but it's all over the place. He's got a good feel for accuracy. Even his at-bats -- I know he's striking out a little bit but he's seeing pitches. It's not a premeditated-type swing."
Sveum had not seen Soler live until a workout last fall at Wrigley Field. Spring Training is giving him and the Cubs brass a chance to see the Cuban outfielder in game situations.
"For a young guy, he doesn't play out of control at all," Sveum said.
Soler hit a triple with two outs in the eighth inning Friday, and he is 3-for-12 this spring.
• Starlin Castro's left hamstring was still tight, but the shortstop may be back in a game by Monday. Castro had to leave Wednesday's game after he felt some discomfort. He expected to resume hitting on Saturday in the batting cage.
Matt Garza, sidelined with a strained left lat since Feb. 17, was able to play catch for the second time since he was injured on Saturday. Garza was able to long toss on Thursday for about 15 minutes.
Dontrelle Willis, who came out of Monday's game because of fatigue in his left shoulder, is pain free and has resumed throwing in the Cubs' Minor League camp.
• The Cubs will play the first of five split-squad games on the schedule on Sunday. Nick Struck, who was the Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2012, will start against the Angels in Tempe and Edwin Jackson will make his second spring start against the Brewers at HoHoKam Stadium. The game in Mesa will be Anthony Rizzo's last with the Cubs before he joins Team Italy for the World Baseball Classic.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.