The Cubs felt pretty, pretty good about their young pitching 10 years ago, when Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano were all pre-prime players in their 20s heading toward October.
That’s the disclaimer for all the upside Theo Epstein’s front office sees in C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson and all the other pitchers they acquired at trade deadlines, in the draft and through sign-and-flip deals and see funneling through the system in the years to come.
It’s not like the Cubs need more reminders about how much farther they still have to go in a National League Central that features three playoff teams with at least 90 wins. But there it was on Tuesday night, clinching last place with an 8-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates in front of 34,138 fans at Wrigley Field.
Chris Rusin ran out of gas in his final game of the season. The 26-year-old left-hander didn’t make it through the third inning, allowing four runs and finishing with a 2-6 record and a 3.93 ERA in 13 major-league starts. That should put him in the mix for the fifth-starter spot in 2014, or maybe a next-man-up position at Triple-A Iowa.
The Cubs (65-93) are going to target more arms this winter, whether or not they ultimately have the resources to land Masahiro Tanaka or the all-in desire to make the Japanese pitcher their signature offseason addition.
But the Cubs are going to need more in a division where Gerrit Cole (10-7, 3.22 ERA) already looks like a frontline starter. Cole – the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft out of UCLA – limited the Cubs to two runs in six innings and turned 23 this month.
Some 300 miles south at Busch Stadium, Michael Wacha lost his no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning of a 2-0 victory over the Washington Nationals. The St. Louis Cardinals selected Wacha out of Texas A&M with the 19th overall pick in the 2012 draft, the one they got as compensation for letting Albert Pujols walk and sign that megadeal with the Los Angeles Angels.
The Cubs can build around Jeff Samardzija’s 200 innings/200 strikeouts and the All-Star leap taken by Travis Wood. A $52 million contract means Edwin Jackson (8-17, 4.74 ERA) will be part of the 2014 rotation.
Manager Dale Sveum is still answering big-picture questions during his pregame media sessions while the front office evaluates whether or not to bring him back for the final guaranteed year of his contract. But Sveum said Jake Arrieta (5.28 career ERA in the big leagues) should be penciled in as the fourth starter.
Scott Baker – who wound up earning $5.5 million and making three starts for the Cubs as he recovered from Tommy John surgery on a one-year deal – is open to the idea of returning but noncommittal.
“I think it’s a wonderful place to play,” Baker said. “We’ll just see. I’ve said it in the past: There’s a lot of things going on here, a lot of moving parts. With these last few starts, I feel like there’s less of a question mark about me next year than there was going into this year. That’s my personal opinion. But hopefully – whether it’s the Cubs or not – other teams feel the same way.”
It will be interesting to see if the Cubs make another type of Jackson commitment this winter, or how they would make that choice, knowing they won’t be contenders across the entire length of that four-year deal.
“You come back, you make adjustments and get ready to strap it on again,” Jackson said. “It’s been a tough year for a lot of people – especially myself – but you live and you learn from it. What don’t kill you – it definitely makes you stronger.”