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.

From top to bottom, Cubs have all the pieces in place, including new deals for Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod

From top to bottom, Cubs have all the pieces in place, including new deals for Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod

CINCINNATI – From top to bottom, the Cubs now have all the pieces in place to make October baseball at Wrigley Field a reality, year after year, with family ownership, rock-star executives and blue-chip players.

“It’s nice to keep the band together,” manager Joe Maddon said, reacting to Friday’s announcement that general manager Jed Hoyer and scouting/player-development chief Jason McLeod had finalized contract extensions, matching up their timelines with team president Theo Epstein’s new monster deal through the 2021 season.

Those architects constructed what’s already a 102-win team, a division champion and the National League’s No. 1 seed, making the Cubs right now the biggest story in baseball, if not professional sports.

The lineup for a 7-3 win over the rebuilding Cincinnati Reds featured two MVP candidates (Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo), a 22-year-old All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell) and marquee free agents (Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler). The last two games of the regular season at Great American Ball Park will feature Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks making their final cases for the Cy Young Award. 

“It always starts with ownership and then it goes into the front office and eventually gets to us when you have that kind of stability,” said Maddon, who led a stunning turnaround with the Tampa Bay Rays despite all the uncertainty that came with small-market payrolls, a charmless domed stadium (Tropicana Field) and speculation about relocation and contraction.

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“We have a great product on the field,” Maddon said. “We have the best ballpark in the world. Our fans are spectacular. The city itself – there’s no more interesting place to live than Chicago. All those factors play into the success.

“I know in the past the Cubs haven’t been as successful as they wanted to be. But I don’t know that all the different ingredients have been put into place this well.

“So looking ahead, you just want to build off what you’ve done. Last year was a good building block coming into this year. And we want to keep moving forward. Of course, our goal is to play the final game of the year and win it. Under these circumstances, I think it becomes more believable on an annual basis.”

Since Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod reunited in the fall of 2011 – updating their World Series blueprints with the Boston Red Sox – the Cubs are just the third team in major-league history to win at least 100 games within four years of a 100-loss season. The Cubs have now qualified for postseason play in consecutive seasons for only the third time in franchise history.

“We had some good pieces,” chairman Tom Ricketts said. “But the organization itself was not in a position where you could believe that there was sustainability and consistency and success on the field. Obviously, Theo and the guys that he brought with him five years ago kind of took the organization down to the studs and started rebuilding.

“The time and energy to do it the right way has paid off with a team that should be successful for years to come.”

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