MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs are taking baby steps with Matt Garza and Scott Baker, hoping they can restore 40 percent of their rotation before it’s too late.
Everyone knows that if the Cubs fall out of contention, the front office won’t hesitate to blow it up by the July 31 trade deadline, which makes the first six weeks or two months of the season so critical.
So the most important pitches thrown Wednesday at HoHoKam Stadium weren’t necessarily from Edwin Jackson’s $52 million right arm.
Before Jackson went five innings in a 2-0 loss to the Colorado Rockies, Matt Garza played catch for the third time in four days, dialing up the intensity a notch with 25 throws from 45 feet out and another 10 from 60 feet.
Garza has been understandably reluctant to give daily updates, or make any guarantees since he strained a lat muscle on his left side almost a month ago. But he said he’s still shooting to join the rotation by the middle of April.
“We didn’t really want to say anything because we didn’t know how it was going to come out,” Garza said. “We’re going to do it again and see how it goes and push it a little more again and see where it’s at and see how it responds tomorrow.”
Manager Dale Sveum spent part of Tuesday’s off-day at Fitch Park watching Baker throw two innings in a minor-league game. The next step for Baker as he recovers from Tommy John surgery is a Cactus League start on Sunday against the Oakland A’s at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.
Baker hasn’t pitched in a real game since September 24, 2011, a season that forced the Minnesota Twins to stash him on the disabled list twice. The Cubs hope he’ll be cleared by the one-year mark after his surgery.
“Baker’s obviously mid-April,” Sveum said. “I think Garza’s going to be more the latter part or the beginning of May. I’m not sure exactly (when yet). But he’s (still) got to throw off a mound a couple times and then it’s going to be live BP. So his spring training will basically probably start in a week from now if everything goes good.”
The Cubs made pitching their No. 1 offseason target after their rotation ranked No. 14 in the National League in ERA (4.52) and innings pitched (922.2). And that was with Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm pitching out of their minds during the first half.
As an overall staff, only one team in the majors walked more hitters than the 101-loss Cubs. It got ugly after the trade deadline, with Dempster (Texas Rangers) and Paul Maholm (Atlanta Braves) being flipped to contenders and Garza getting shutdown with an elbow injury. The product looked more like Triple-A Iowa.
“Substantially (better pitching)? Who knows until it’s all done?” Sveum said. “(But) we got guys with track records. We got guys with stuff in the media guide. We got guys that will throw strikes. Last year, we had trouble with all those things. The depth and the youth we had to put out there and guys not throwing strikes was a big thorn.
“Now we should have a bullpen that throws strikes. Obviously, with the rotation, they’ve all been there before and they’ve done it. We don’t have to worry about the deer-in-headlights factors.”
The Cubs certainly aren’t at full strength yet, though Starlin Castro (hamstring) did play in his first game in two weeks and felt good afterward: “Oh yeah, (it’s fun). I don’t want to be in the training room my whole life.”
Ian Stewart (quadriceps) could be in action on Thursday for the beginning of his cram session trying to win the job at third base.
All this uncertainty underlines the importance of Jackson, who has made 30 or more starts in each of the last six seasons. He gave up one run in five innings and if he hits 200 this season then the Cubs will know it was money well spent.
“We won’t be the only team that comes out short a guy or everyone not ready to go,” Jackson said. “(But) it’s not necessarily how you start out. It’s how you finish. We have confidence in whoever we send out every fifth day to take the mound: Our team has a chance to win.
“That’s the only way that you can look at it. It’s easy to go and point out all the negatives, but you just have to try to keep it positive.”