MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs are facing Powerball odds as they try to get off to a fast start and avoid the midseason sell-off that leads to another last-place finish.
Any hopes rest on the starting pitching, a rebuilt bullpen and some wild cards playing way above their heads — or else it’s a third consecutive summer where the Cubs trade away 40 percent of their rotation.
The Cubs will face 2013 playoff teams in nine of their first 12 games this season, and 18 of their first 30. That gets you through the first weekend of May, immediately followed by four rivalry games against the White Sox and a seven-day road trip through Atlanta and St. Louis.
Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija and sign-and-flip guy Jason Hammel would be the trade bait (if they even make it all the way to the July 31 deadline.) Elite prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora have already been assigned to minor-league camp, but Samardzija sees signs for optimism.
“(Look at) our youth out there,” Samardzija said. “I’ve seen us this spring create more runs than we have in the past, which is exciting. Whether it’s stealing bases or taking advantage of miscues on the other team’s defense and taking long at-bats, I think it’s going to be a big key for us.
“I’ve always said that it’s important in Chicago to start fast and really get those fans behind you and get that momentum going. Because once you build that momentum in Chicago, it’s a hard thing to miss.”
The Cubs publicly set 80 percent of their rotation on Saturday, with $52 million pitcher Edwin Jackson slotting in between Samardzija and Hammel for the opening series against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.
The Cubs analyzed the matchups and decided to start All-Star lefty Travis Wood against Ryne Sandberg’s Philadelphia Phillies on April 4, in what will be the home opener for Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary.
“The place will be packed,” Wood said. “It will be jumping. It will be nice.”
The No. 5 starter will be a choice between veteran swingman Carlos Villanueva and left-hander Chris Rusin with Jake Arrieta (right shoulder) expected to begin the season on the disabled list.
The Cubs could use Villanueva’s flexibility with four off-days between April 1 and April 17. Rusin has stated his case by putting together 12 scoreless innings in his last three outings.
Jackson, who led the majors with 18 losses last season, hasn’t looked particularly sharp this spring. He made it through five innings in Saturday’s 8-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at sold-out Cubs Park, giving up four runs on eight hits and one walk against seven strikeouts.
“We all have to have the demeanor that we’re the ace that day,” Jackson said. “When you have the ball, you have to be the best pitcher on the field. You can’t really worry about where you are in the rotation. (Just) going out and giving your team a chance to win is the bigger picture.”