MESA, Ariz. (AP) -Manager Lou Piniella ran into Ryan Dempster at a shopping mall as the Chicago Cubs pitcher was getting ready to go for a run - up one of the biggest mountain ranges in the Phoenix area.
``I told him I was going to go with him, but I was going to drive the Suburban,'' Piniella said. ``He's taking this seriously, believe me.''
Quick-witted and affable, Dempster's serious side this spring is concentrating on making one of baseball's toughest switches. He wants to go from a closer who recorded 85 saves in 99 chances over the last three seasons into the Cubs rotation as a starter.
``Not a lot of guys do it. Physically I'm in as good a shape as I've ever been and mentally I'm excited,'' Dempster said.
Dempster's goal will be to pitch 200 innings, a plateau he reached three times while a starter with the with the Marlins and Reds from 1998-2003.
He underwent elbow ligament replacement surgery in 2003 with Cincinnati and after being released was signed by the Cubs in January 2004. He was in the Cubs rotation for six games in 2005 before making the transition to the bullpen and becoming the closer.
The 30-year-old veteran enjoyed success as a starter, going 14-10 with the Marlins in 2000 when he made the All-Star team and 15-12 the following season.
``Dempster wants to start. We're going to let him compete. If he shows us midway through spring training that he can do it, then we'll figure out the back end of it (the rotation),'' Piniella said.
The Cubs nearly made the switch last May. After telling reporters how excited he was to join the Cubs' rotation, he was called in for a meeting with Piniella. About 30 minutes later, Dempster returned to his locker with fresher news - he was staying in the bullpen after all.
``It proved to be the right decision to leave him where he was, but with the understanding he would get every opportunity this spring to start,'' Piniella said.
``And I thought he pitched very well out of the bullpen. I thought as the season wore on he got better and better, but we made him that promise.''
One of the most successful double switches for a pitcher was pulled off by Atlanta's John Smoltz, who went from top-notch starter to stellar closer and then back to the rotation.
``It's not going to be easy going from 70 innings a year to 200. But I feel good and more importantly my arm feels good,'' Dempster said.
Even though he converted 28 of 31 chances last year - despite a stint on the disabled list with a strained oblique muscle - Dempster knows how fickle the closer's job can be. There can be a perfect ninth one day or a game like he had last May 17, when he gave up five runs in the ninth inning against the Mets in New York. He was 2-7 last season with a 4.73 ERA in 66 appearances.
``Now I got a chance to go out there and give up a run and it's not going to be the game,'' Dempster said. ``That's the truth. You can be a starter and give up three runs in the first and go six more innings and everybody talks about what a great job you did. If you are closing, you give up one run and sometimes they want to run you out.''
Dempster's best bet for making the rotation will be as the fifth starter. The other four are pretty much locked in. Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly are the Nos. 1-2 with Rich Hill at No. 4. And Piniella says veteran Jon Lieber, whom the Cubs reacquired this offseason, is the favorite for the No. 3 slot.
That would leave Dempster competing with Jason Marquis and Sean Marshall for the final spot in the rotation. Dempster's switch has also created an opening at closer where Bob Howry, Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood are candidates. Howry would have to be the favorite. He saved eight games last season and has 65 for his career.
On the day pitches and catchers reported to spring training last week, Dempster created a mild stir when he predicted the Cubs would win the World Series this season on the 100th anniversary of their last title.
He wants to be part of it. As a starter and not a closer. He worked long hours in the offseason on strengthening his legs and abs.
``I believe if you are stronger in the lower abs, you can withstand going out and making 30 starts. I know I'm going to have a good year. I really do.
``I learned a lot the past few years and I'm looking forward to starting. I'm not worried. Things will take care of themselves,'' he said.

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