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.

Jake Arrieta expects Cubs to have the best rotation in baseball

Jake Arrieta expects Cubs to have the best rotation in baseball

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Jake Arrieta is a Cy Young Award winner who won't get the Opening Night assignment. John Lackey is a No. 3 starter already fitted for his third World Series ring. Kyle Hendricks led the majors with a 2.13 ERA last year and won't start until the fifth game of this season.  

Do you feel like this is the best rotation in baseball?

"We're up there, yeah," Arrieta said after homering off Zack Greinke during Thursday afternoon's 5-5 tie with the Arizona Diamondbacks at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. "I think on paper – and with what we've actually done on the field – it's tough to not say that.

"We like the guys we have. People can rank them, but time will tell. Once we get out there the first four or five times through the rotation, I think you can probably put a stamp on it then, more so than now. 

"But, yeah, we stack up just as well as anybody out there, for sure."  

Arrieta made it through five innings against the Diamondbacks, giving up three runs and eight hits in what figures to be his second-to-last Cactus League tune-up before facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on April 4. 

The New York Mets blew away Cubs hitters with their power pitching and game-planning during that 2015 National League Championship Series sweep. The Washington Nationals are trying to keep Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg healthy and already watched Tanner Roark deliver for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. 

The Cubs dreaded the idea of facing Johnny Cueto in a possible elimination game at Wrigley Field last October. The Los Angeles Dodgers almost became a matchup nightmare for the Cubs with lefties Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill during the 2016 NLCS.

But slotting Hendricks at No. 5 – five months after he started a World Series Game 7 – is a luxury few contenders can afford. 

"That just speaks to our length in the rotation," Arrieta said, "and being able to keep relievers out of the game, longer than most teams. That's a big deal, especially when you get into July and August. 

"Obviously, Kyle could be a 1 or 2 just about anywhere. Not that he's not here. We've got several of those, which is a good problem to have. It's going to be favorable for us when there's a No. 4 or No. 5 guy in our rotation going up against somebody else's. Our chances are really good, especially with our lineup." 

Arrieta talked up No. 4 starter Brett Anderson as "a little bit like Hendricks from the left side" in terms of his preparation, cerebral nature and spin rate, a combination that makes him an X-factor for this rotation and an organization starved for pitching beyond 2017. 

The if-healthy disclaimer always comes with Anderson, who played with Arrieta on the 2008 Olympic team and has been on the disabled list nine times since then. Coming out of high school, Arrieta initially signed to play for Anderson's father, Frank, the Oklahoma State University coach at the time, before going in a different direction in a career that wouldn't truly take off until he got to Chicago. 

"We're all looking forward to seeing how we pick up where we left off," Arrieta said. "Judging by what we've done this spring and the shape guys are in and the health – I don't see any reason we can't jump out to an early lead like we did last year and sustain it throughout the entire season."

Cubs Talk Podcast: The making of Reign Men


Cubs Talk Podcast: The making of Reign Men

In the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull sits down with CSN executive producers Ryan McGuffey and Sarah Lauch, the creators of 'Reign Men: The Story Behind Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, which premieres March 27 at 9:30 p.m. on CSN.

McGuffey and Lauch share their experience making the 52-minute documentary as they sifted through hours of sound from the likes of Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein, Jason Heyward, Anthony Rizzo and more recapping one of the greatest baseball games ever played.

Plus, hear a sneak peak of 'Reign Men’ as Heyward and Epstein describe their perspective of the Rajai Davis game-tying homer and that brief rain delay that led to Heyward’s epic speech.

Check out the latest Cubs Talk Podcast right here: