Cubs compete to become bunting champion

MESA, Ariz. -- Saturday marks the official start of Chicago Cubs manager Dale Sveum’s annual spring training bunting tournament. Brackets were posted outside the locker room, with 61 players, a bullpen coach and a yet-to-be named 64th participant all vying to unseat David DeJesus as the reigning champion.

The 64th player in the tournament will come from a play-in bracket to be completed Saturday afternoon featuring nonplayer Cubs personnel and front-office types. The highlight of the play-in has team president Theo Epstein taking on general manager Jed Hoyer.

“I just hope no one gets hurt,” pitcher James Russell said Saturday morning of the play-in bracket.

Russell is just one of several participants –- all pitchers -– who aren’t exactly ready for the tournament.

“I haven’t picked up a bat this spring, so it’s going to be interesting,” he said. “It’s like riding a bike. You don’t forget how to do it.”

The bunting tournament is Sveum's brainchild and consists of a March Madness-type tournament in which participants are given points for a series of well-placed bunts. The winners move on.

“You know who’s going to win: the one with the most money on it,” new catcher Dioner Navarro said. “The rich get richer.”

Pitcher Casey Coleman faced DeJesus in the final last year and likes the outfielder’s chances of repeating.

“He does everything well, especially bunting,” Coleman said. “He’s got great bunt control.”

Coleman claims now that he’s become a reliever, he hasn’t been bunting as much as when he was starting, so he’s not picking himself to go far.

Neither is Russell, but he and Coleman said it's more about not losing to certain people than it is about winning.

“If you lose to [Anthony] Rizzo, that’s not good,” Coleman said.

Russell added: “It’s bad especially if you lose to a catcher.”

Navarro didn’t take to kindly to that remark.

“I can bunt. I can get the job done,” he said. “I can beat a pitcher.”

Not surprisingly, Matt Garza was very vocal on the subject of the bunting tournament, claiming he lost to Carlos Marmol on a “technicality.”

“I just want to get out of the second round,” Garza said. “I better not lose to Marmol again.”

After the play-in winner is determined Saturday, the 64-player bracket will begin early next week.

Jesse Rogers covers the Cubs for ESPN 1000 and ESPNChicago.com