MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs certainly aren’t going to hit the panic button with four weeks to go until Opening Day. The front office committed more than $73 million this winter to guard against this very possibility.
Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer stocked up on free-agents pitchers: Edwin Jackson, Scott Baker, Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva. But that rainy day fund is just about cashed out.
You wondered about the next man up even before Monday’s 13-5 loss to the Cleveland Indians in front of 5,465 fans at HoHoKam Stadium. Then Alberto Cabrera and Brooks Raley – two starters likely headed to Triple-A Iowa – gave up 10 runs in five innings.
Let’s not pretend that Cactus League stats contain any meaning. The Cubs want to stretch out Cabrera in the minors and think he could make a successful transition out of the bullpen the same way 2013 Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija did last season.
It’s just that, for the moment, all that depth seems to be evaporating with Matt Garza (lat muscle strain) and Baker (recovering from Tommy John surgery) projected to open the season on the disabled list.
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“We feel like we got a good core of dudes here in the starting rotation that all have each other’s back,” Samardzija said. “We just want everybody healthy and ready to go. We know if we can string start after start with all of us healthy pitching, we’re going to be a formidable starting rotation.”
Baker threw his third live batting practice session on Monday, and should be in a simulated game later this week. Garza insisted he’s going to push for mid-April, even though manager Dale Sveum made it sound like you shouldn’t expect him before May.
Cubs executives talk about needing nine or 10 starters to get through a 162-game season. Raley and Chris Rusin could provide depth at the back end. Sveum identified Drew Carpenter – a 27-year-old non-roster player who has made one career start in the big leagues – as next in line as a possible No. 6 starter.
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Rule 5 pick Hector Rondon – Cleveland’s 2009 minor league pitcher of the year – is a possible bullpen piece after elbow injuries wiped out most of his past three seasons. The Cubs are trying to see if Rondon can throw two innings and on back-to-back days.
“T-Wood and ‘Los” sounds like a reality show, but that’s what Samardzija called the new fourth and fifth starters, Travis Wood and Villanueva.
Wood made strides last season using the game plans designed by the coaching staff, putting together a 19.2-inning scoreless streak at one point and posting a 3.25 ERA in his last nine starts.
For what it’s worth, the 26-year-old left-hander also feels more comfortable in camp this spring after being a key piece in the Sean Marshall trade with the Cincinnati Reds.
Throughout his career, Villanueva has been a swingman for the Toronto Blue Jays and Milwaukee Brewers, going 33-35 with a 4.26 ERA.
“We got the arms to do it,” Samardzija said. “Obviously, you want to be 100 percent healthy and then make your decisions on who’s pitching. But we’re going to go out with the same plan. You want to pitch deep into the game and you can’t put too much on yourself just because you got 32 starts in a season. Every one’s got to count. But you want to be there in the end and not the beginning.”
[Related: Opening Day start the next step in Samardzija's evolution]
Beginning April 3, the Cubs are scheduled to play 32 games in 33 days, weather permitting, and half of those are against playoff teams from last season. Everyone understands the importance of getting off to a good start and forcing the front office to think long and hard about becoming sellers at the trade deadline again.
Jackson’s four-year, $52 million contract could look like a bargain if he gives the Cubs 200 innings each season. Jackson played with Garza on the worst-to-first Tampa Bay Rays team that went to the 2008 World Series and understands his intensity and anxiety.
“We’d definitely rather have him August-September, when we’re coming down the stretch and hopefully making a playoff push,” Jackson said. “It’s always easy to say be patient when you don’t have to go through it. (We) all get eager to get out and touch the field – especially when we can’t – but it’s just one of those things where you’d rather not rush in.
“I’m sure he’s anxious, but we all would be anxious. If I was down, I would be anxious to get back out, too. It’s just one of those things where you have to kind of look for the future and take a deep breath.”
That’s not easy given the way Garza is wired, but last year’s stress reaction in his right elbow seemed to change his perspective, and he sounded prepared to let the left side of his body heal.
Yes, it’s still early, and the Cubs can survive, but they can’t afford too many more setbacks.