When the Cubs first reported for spring training three months ago, there were six good options for the starting rotation. Somebody was going to get left out in the cold.
But during the first full-squad workout, Matt Garza strained a lat muscle and was shut down, leaving manager Dale Sveum with an easy decision: Five arms for five spots.
[RELATED: Garza will force Cubs to make tough decision]
Garza, who missed the last two-and-a-half months of the 2012 season with a stress reaction in his elbow, has been working his way back to the field and ramped up his rehab with a start at Triple-A Iowa on Thursday. The veteran right-hander threw 75 pitches in six shutout innings, allowing just two hits and striking out six batters.
"He was really good," Sveum said prior to Friday's tilt with Matt Harvey and the New York Mets. "Very effecient, obviously. He got strikeouts and his slider was better. It was really good. Everything went according to plan."
Garza is ultra-competitive, having dubbed himself as the Cubs' "Super Fan" on days he doesn't pitch. You know the 10 months off has been absolute torture for a guy who once said he would pitch on the moon.
Thus, after four rehab starts, Garza has declared himself ready to rejoin the big league club.
"I don't need another start down here," Garza told reporters in Iowa Thursday, including Tommy Birch of the Des Moines Register. "There's no reason for me to stay in the minor leagues."
Sveum wasn't immediately ready to activate Garza on Friday morning, but the energetic veteran may force the Cubs' hand. Garza is slated to return to Chicago sometime Friday and throw a side session Saturday morning.
"We would have liked to send him out [in Triple-A again], but he did what he was supposed to do and that was it," Sveum said. "We'll see how his side session goes, and we'll go from there. We'll sit down and talk and come up with a decision."
Garza's impending return complicates Sveum's rotation and will push somebody to the bullpen. Despite a 5.76 ERA, Edwin Jackson is not going to become a $52-million reliever, and Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood are also safe.
Scott Feldman (2.53 ERA) and Carlos Villanueva have been very good to start the 2013 campaign, but both have also had success as relievers in their careers.
Villanueva seems the most likely candidate to head to the bullpen. Since April 23, the 29-year-old has allowed 18 earned runs in 23 1/3 innings and has seen his ERA jump from 1.53 to 3.93.
Sveum said Friday he has not spoken to any pitcher yet about moving to the bullpen.
"I wouldn't say we've projected it, but we've talked about the scenarios and 'what-ifs' and how we're going to handle it," Sveum said. "When you have that kind of depth and you're penciling in someone like Matt Garza on your staff, you're ahead of the game. We're fortunate to have that.
"We've been fortunate to keep our head above water with everything else. Obviously, the record is not where we want it to be, but the starting pitching has done their job throughout the first six weeks of the season."