Cubs starting to think big, will make pitching No. 1 priority

Cubs starting to think big, will make pitching No. 1 priority
August 3, 2014, 12:30 am
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LOS ANGELES — Now comes the hard part: The Cubs are going to have to spend crazy money on pitching and give up some of their precious prospects to build a rotation for October.

The Los Angeles Dodgers invested more than $420 million in Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Josh Beckett — a World Series MVP and three-time All Star who threw a no-hitter in May — has been their fifth starter. They have the National League’s best record and a World Series-or-bust mentality.

The Cubs understand they can’t sign-and-flip their way into the playoffs.

“It would be pretty cocky to feel like we could do it over and over,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It has worked for us. It does give us some comfort. We really do believe in our pitching infrastructure, as we’ve talked about. But we don’t feel like: Oh, hey, every year we can go out and get a guy like this for six, seven million bucks and know we can plug him in the rotation. I don’t think that’s something we can take for granted.

“We can’t think that we can go out every year and sign a guy for a one-year deal and he’s going to be successful.”

[MORE CUBS: Stay or go? Villanueva would enjoy talking smack when Cubs get good]

The Cubs converted 35 starts from Scott Feldman and Paul Maholm into potential Opening Day starter Jake Arrieta, hard-throwing setup guy Pedro Strop and right-hander Arodys Vizcaino, who was supposed to be the next big thing for the Atlanta Braves before Tommy John surgery.

After 17 starts, Jason Hammel became a piece in the Jeff Samardzija deal with the Oakland A’s, which yielded shortstop Addison Russell, Baseball America’s No. 5 overall midseason prospect.

“There’s no denying that they have built an empire down there in the minor leagues,” Cubs swingman Carlos Villanueva said. “It just depends on if they can deliver once they get up here. The talent evaluators here are very good, and most of the guys they’ve brought here haven’t failed.

“A guy like (Anthony) Rizzo may have taken a little bit, but look at what he’s doing now. A little experience goes a long way. We all think it’s going to be good. But you have to wait and see. Minor-league numbers aren’t big-league numbers. You never know.”

The Boston Red Sox connections mean this winter the Cubs will be linked to Jon Lester, now a hired gun in Oakland. Max Scherzer is also going to be a free agent, but the Cubs and the Detroit Tigers ace aren’t viewed as a match now.

Just traded from the Tampa Bay Rays, David Price might not even hit the market after next season if the Tigers build off the Scherzer offer (six years, $144 million) to lock up another Cy Young Award winner.

The Cubs didn’t want to make it personal and tried to leave everything on good terms with Samardzija, who will test the market after next season.

“We know we’re not close on pitching,” Hoyer said. “We know we have to add a lot more depth and we have to add a lot more talent. Really, our next 18-to-24 months is going to be largely spent doing just that.”

[MORE CUBS: Hendricks beats Dodgers, showing why he belongs in Cubs rotation]

The Cubs wanted Russell more than pitching back in the big Samardzija trade, which also netted outfielder Billy McKinney, a first-round pick last year. The Theo Epstein administration has used first-round picks on outfielder Albert Almora, third baseman (for now) Kris Bryant and catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber.

“We’re still pretty imbalanced,” Hoyer said. “Certainly in the minor-league system we’re imbalanced. That’s just going to be a huge priority, and we know it. That said, look around baseball right now. What bats changed hands? No one’s trading bats right now. If you needed a bat in a pennant race, you probably were out of luck at this deadline.

“I like the fact that we have a lot of volume of something that people don’t necessarily have right now.”

There are a lot of ifs, and there are times where it feels like the Cubs are all talk. But if Epstein’s front office capitalizes on the financial flexibility and lands a No. 1 starter, and Bryant (No. 2) and Javier Baez (No. 7) start living up to the Baseball America hype, and Rizzo and Starlin Castro keep playing like All Stars, this could get interesting next summer.

“Good things can happen,” Castro said. “There’s a lot of great guys out there. Next year, we can have a really good team, all season, with all the guys here together.”