To get to October, Cubs will have to make pitching No. 1 priority


To get to October, Cubs will have to make pitching No. 1 priority

The Tigers gave Justin Verlander the ball on Wednesday night at AT&T Park. Who else would you rather have on the mound right now?

Game 1 of the World Series didnt go as planned, with the Giants knocking out Verlander in an 8-3 rout, and thats the crapshoot nature of the postseason. If the Cubs are going to play in October year after year like team president Theo Epstein says they will then they have to fix their pitching shortage and identify and develop some elite arms.

The Giants do that as well as anyone, whether its through the draft (Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum) or off the scrap heap (Ryan Vogelsong). Thats why theyre chasing their second World Series title in the past three years.

You wonder about the price of Anibal Sanchez two earned runs in 13.1 innings this postseason if he has another lights-out start for Detroit in Game 3 before hitting free agency.

The Cubs will be in the market for at least two legitimate starting pitchers this winter. But really this search is going on at all levels of the organization.

Adding to our base of young pitching is the No. 1 priority, as far as scouting and player development now, Epstein said, because we do feel pretty good about our position-player group. We just have a long ways to go with our pitching.

It has to catch up. Even when you add major-league pitchers through trade or free agency, if you dont have that strong base of pitching in the minor leagues to support it, its really hard to have any kind of run of sustained success.

With a 6-foot-4 frame and a fastball close to 100 mph, Shohei Otani is an intriguing, complicated case for the Cubs. The 18-year-old has announced that he wants to skip Japanese professional baseball and come to the United States right out of high school.

The new collective bargaining agreement will work against the Cubs. A team that goes 15 percent beyond the 2.9 million international bonus pool is hit with a 100 percent tax, which isnt an issue for the right player. The problem is that the team also cant give out a bonus bigger than 250,000 in the next signing period.

Thats when the Cubs, who are relatively strong in Latin America, will have one of the biggest signing pools. They could want to chase a few million-dollar players. The teams with the best records will have a smaller pool and an incentive to spread the money around anyway. This will put the Cubs at a disadvantage in the Otani sweepstakes, which could reportedly include the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers and Dodgers.

But theres no question the Cubs are trying to build inventory. After taking Albert Almora, they drafted pitchers with their next seven picks, and eight within the first eight rounds. Trading Ryan Dempster, Geovany Soto, Paul Maholm, Reed Johnson and Jeff Baker brought five more arms into the system.

The headliner was Arodys Vizcaino, whos 21 years old and entered the 2012 season as the No. 2 prospect in Atlantas organization, but became available as he recovered from Tommy John surgery.

Well take it slow, Epstein said. There will be somewhat of an innings limit for him next year. So even if things are progressing perfectly, were not going to rush him into a full-time load coming out of spring training.

Were probably going to have a pretty structured, pretty regimented routine for him (where he) gets stretched out through the first couple months of the season.

We build the (2013) rotation without him and then we hope that there will be a time that he forces his way into that rotation.

The Cubs have the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, which could change the course of franchise history. They simply have to get it right. Verlander may be a sure thing now, but remember that the Padres took a total bust (Matt Bush) with the first overall pick in 2004.

The Tigers then grabbed Verlander out of Old Dominion University, beginning a run of seven straight pitchers whove been all over the map: Philip Humber (Mets); Jeff Niemann (Devil Rays); Mark Rogers (Brewers); Jeremy Sowers (Indians); Homer Bailey (Reds); and Wade Townsend (Orioles). A Scott Boras client Jered Weaver fell to the Angels at No. 12.

If the Cubs get off to a slow start next season, Matt Garza figures to again be a trade chip for more young pitching, assuming hes healthy. Garzas recovering from the stress reaction in his right elbow but has vowed to be ready for spring training.

Epstein said theres not much news there: The last scan (in mid-to-late September) showed the healing that were looking for, and hes going to have another scan sometime in mid-November.

The Cubs are also looking for the next Jeff Samardzija. The experiment went so well that Samardzija has established himself as part of Epsteins core. Theyre hoping to reinvent another reliever Alberto Cabrera.

(Cabrera) had a great developmental year, to the point where were considering putting him in the rotation, likely at Triple-A, stretching him out again, Epstein said. I know he was a starter previously, but with some of the strides hes made we think theres a chance that we have a real asset on our hands where we could potentially get a big-league starter out of him down the road.

Cabrera posted a 6.16 ERA in 28 games (26 starts) split between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa in 2011. This year he struck out 74 batters while walking only 14 in 55 innings in the minors. He notched 27 strikeouts in 21.2 innings with the Cubs.

Cabrera another player Jose Serra helped sign in the Dominican Republic turns 24 on Thursday and the Cubs believe he may have turned the corner.

Very intriguing arm, Epstein said. Hes got a chance for two-plus secondary pitches, too. This year his slider was really impressive when he first came up, and the year before he had a wipeout changeup.

With the velocity he brings with his heater, (you) got a chance for three-plus pitches on a big frame with a kid whos starting to get it.

Part of the reason Samardzija took (that) step forward (was) all the lessons he learned going up and down. (There were) some of his trials and tribulations and the light really started to go on for him in the second half of 2011. Sometimes it just takes innings. It takes facing adversity.

Report: Dexter Fowler closing in on deal with Cardinals

Report: Dexter Fowler closing in on deal with Cardinals

Dexter Fowler won't be making a surprise return to the Cubs next season.

Fowler is closing in on a deal to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals, according to USA Today's Bob Nightengale.

The Cubs signed outfielder Jon Jay last week to a one-year deal, pretty much sealing Fowler's future with the Cubs.

In two seasons in Chicago, Fowler batted .261/.367/.427 with 30 home runs and 94 RBI, and a World Series ring.

Koji Uehara would add another dimension to Cubs bullpen

Koji Uehara would add another dimension to Cubs bullpen

The Cubs are reportedly on the verge of adding another pitcher who’s notched the final out of a World Series as Theo Epstein’s front office builds out the bullpen for manager Joe Maddon.

The Cubs are nearing a one-year, $4.5 million deal with Koji Uehara, according to Nikkan Sports in Japan, which would open up even more possibilities for the defending champs in front of All-Star closer Wade Davis.

The Cubs made their biggest splash during this week’s winter meetings at National Harbor in Maryland by trading young outfielder Jorge Soler to the Kansas City Royals for Davis, who finished off Game 5 in the 2015 World Series.

Uehara closed out the 2013 World Series for the Boston Red Sox, the beginning of three straight seasons where he put up 20-plus saves. The Cubs have not confirmed an agreement is in place.

The Cubs needed another lefty presence with Mike Montgomery – the pitcher on the mound when the 108-year drought ended in November – moving to the rotation and Travis Wood likely leaving as a free agent.

Uehara throws right-handed, but he shuts down left-handed hitters (.183 batting average, .555 OPS across 800 at-bats) and has appeared in seven postseason series after a distinguished career in Japan.

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Uehara will turn 42 the day after Opening Day. But an array of relievers should help preserve Uehara, strengthen Carl Edwards Jr. (who’s generously listed at 170 pounds) and maybe prevent the late-season injuries that marginalized Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop during the playoffs.

“We’re going to try to build up a ton of depth,” Epstein said. “We’re going to try to build up a really talented, deep bullpen with a lot of different options that you can use in close games.

“Instead of three late-game options, it would be ideal if you had five or six. And you could always like who you’re turning to in the ‘pen and not feel the need to use a Rondon four out of five times.

“(We could) use them every other day and occasional back-to-backs. And that would help keep them fresh down the stretch – and help keep them strong in October.”