If Theo Epstein’s long rebuilding process is likened to a capital “U,” then his Cubs are at the bottom of the letter and looking up at the long climb on the right side.
In Epstein’s second spring training as baseball boss, there is no better way to jump-start that journey than with more stability in the starting rotation.
Epstein theorizes manager Dave Sveum has seven qualified big-league pitchers competing for five rotation spots in Mesa. That’s a far cry from the sorry end to the 101-loss season last year when the likes of Chris Volstad, Justin Germano, Jason Berken, Brooks Raley and Chris Rusin had to start due to injuries.
Valparaiso’s Jeff Samardzija and a healthy Matt Garza, both possessed of No. 1 starter’s stuff, should now be followed by Edwin Jackson, Scott Baker and Scott Feldman. All are young veterans with at least some degree of major-league success. Just behind them are Carlos Villanueva and lefty Travis Wood if one or more of the others has a poor spring or, in the case of Baker, is behind schedule in returning from injury.
“The old verbiage that defense wins championships — pitching and defense (in baseball) — isn’t just made up,” Samardzija said. “It’s a reason why it’s an old adage — it works.”
Of course, a concurrent Epstein rebuilding strategy is to hope for good performances from veteran pitchers so they can be flipped for young talent in the mid-summer trading market. Until then, a more positive tone can be created with a competent rotation after four seasons of steady franchise declines.
“We have plenty of guys that are going to be able to do the job, so that helps the team out,” outfielder David De Jesus said.
Now comes the tricky part for Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and manager Dale Sveum. They’ve got only the fragments of an effective lineup in shortstop Starlin Castro, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and left fielder Alfonso Soriano, in the seventh of eight seasons of his albatross $136 million contract. DeJesus, who could play center or right, and Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney are proverbial .260 to .270 hitters.
“Obviously you need to score at least one run to win the game, so we have to figure out ways to put some runs across the board,” Samardzija said.
Newly-arrived outfielder Scott Hairston will factor into Sveum’s lineup calculations as camp progresses. Hairston has 20-homer power and doesn't want to be typecast anymore as a platoon player. He could plug a potentially big hole in right field if he can show a regular’s offensive prowess.
“He hit 11 homers against lefties, and nine against righties, and a lot against right-handed relievers late in the game,” said brother Jerry Hairston, Jr., a Dodgers utility player. “Look at Scott’s and Cody Ross’ numbers, they’re comparable. It’s terrible to get typecast (being platooned) that way.
Even with the potential extra thump, Sveum will still need to tax his players’ skills to support the starting rotation.
“We’re going to have to manufacture runs,” said De Jesus. “We’re going to have to play baseball the way baseball’s been played for years. I don’t think the (world champion) Giants had (lots of) thumpers. They had one or two. They were able to stay in games because of their pitching.”