MESA, Ariz. -- Ryan Dempster heads into the season as the Cubs closer, and with manager Lou Piniella's blessing.

"He's got good stuff," Piniella said Tuesday of the right-hander. "I think [last year] he lost confidence in himself. That's the good thing about a new season -- hope springs eternal. You work hard and put that behind you, and that's exactly what he's doing."

Dempster led the National League in save percentage in 2005, his first season as a closer, but converted 24 of 33 opportunities in 2006. Expect to see him pitching earlier than the ninth inning this spring so he can face better hitters, and not late-inning substitutes. Dempster doesn't need to work on dealing with pressure.

"I would venture to say that the pressure is not the problem," Piniella said. "The execution has been the problem. How he and other pitchers execute here in the spring as far as throwing strikes and command, that's the important consideration.

"I don't think pressure gets to a kid like Dempster," Piniella said. "When you start talking about pressure in sports, when do you have pressure? It's when you don't have confidence in yourself."

Keep it simple: Piniella is giving the same message to the pitching coach, the pitchers and the catchers this spring: Throw strikes. The Cubs led the Major Leagues with 1,250 strikeouts, and also a club-record 687 walks.

"We've talked to our catchers about getting them out on three or four pitches instead of working the count," Piniella said. "Not too many good things can come from long counts. First of all, you're letting the hitters see all your pitches. Second of all, your infielders aren't going to be as attentive and they're not going to make as many good plays.

"Third of all, you have pitch counts and these guys will be out of the game sooner than you'd like to see them," he said. "Fourth of all, you're in running counts all the time, so you're opening up holes for the hitter to hit the ball through. And finally, the manager's not going to be very pleased."

Old friends: Catcher Michael Barrett and hurler Ted Lilly were teammates for two seasons in Montreal, and even lived together briefly when the left-handed pitcher was called up in 1999.

"As far as a pitcher now, he's a completely different pitcher," Barrett said of Lilly, who will make his Cactus League debut for the Cubs on Monday. "He has a really good sinker, really good slider. When he was in Montreal, he was a four-seam fastball, curveball, change guy. His change, he was still working on. Now he's a four-pitch guy, maybe even a five-pitch guy. He's got a really good sinker. He's a totally different pitcher."

"It's been eight years since he last caught me," Lilly said, "and I think I've progressed both in the mental aspect and the physical aspect of the game. I learned what I needed to do."

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Barrett is trying to get more feedback on Lilly, and has asked hitters during the batting practice sessions about what they see. Lilly does have a reputation as a fly-ball pitcher, which won't help at Wrigley Field.

"I can see how people can say that," Barrett said. "But he's got a good sinker, good slider. I think he's going to be OK. I think he'll get a lot more ground balls this year. Toronto can be a little bit of a hitter-friendly park at times."

At first glance, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound pitcher doesn't look that tough. Don't cross him. A few years ago, a pit bull attacked one of Lilly's dogs and he got in the middle of the fight.

"I had to get into his mouth to take him off," Lilly said. "I used both hands, and the dog bit my right hand.

"I guess it was instinctual," he said. "I was afraid it was going to kill my dog. I felt I had to do something fast."

That's the kind of guy who's good to have as a teammate. Barrett knows that. The other players will, too.

"It's been a really smooth transition," said Lilly, one of the Cubs' free-agent signees this winter. "I'm so lucky to be able to chose the team that I want. There aren't a lot of guys in the game who get that opportunity, and I feel fortunate. The transition here has been easy because this is a desired place to be."

New friends: Spring Training drills can seem boring, but they benefit someone like second baseman Mark DeRosa, who is getting to know his infield teammates.

"Cesar [Izturis], working together with him, everything [he throws] is right in the chest, he's so smooth," DeRosa said. "Derrek [Lee] is a very easy target. It looks like a nice situation."

It helps that Izturis and Lee are both former Gold Glove winners.

Quote of the day: "It'd be nice to win a World Series for him." -- Cubs pitcher Rich Hill, on Ron Santo, who was denied entry into the Hall of Fame after the latest Veterans Committee vote

Extra bases: The Cubs moved to HoHoKam Park after Tuesday's workout, and will practice there Wednesday. The workout will be open to the public, starting at 9 a.m. MT. ... Daryle Ward missed Tuesday's workout because he was sick. ... Jason Marquis will face new Giants ace Barry Zito on Thursday in the Cactus League opener at HoHoKam Park. On Friday, Carlos Zambrano will start for the Cubs against the Angels' Joe Saunders. Rich Harden is scheduled to start Saturday for Oakland against Wade Miller, and Jon Garland will start Sunday for the White Sox against the Cubs' Hill.