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After gauging his trade value, Cubs seem ready to make Matt Garza a long-term investment

Cubs starting pitcher Matt Garzworks second inning as Chicago Cubs take FloridMarlins Thursday July 14 2011 Wrigley Field. | Tom

Cubs starting pitcher Matt Garza works in the second inning as the Chicago Cubs take on the Florida Marlins Thursday July 14, 2011 at Wrigley Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 20, 2012 8:27AM

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs don’t know what their roster’s going to look like two or three years from now. But they know where they want to start.

And it’s the same way they figure to start their opener this season: with Matt Garza.

After exploring Garza’s trade value this winter — then narrowly avoiding salary arbitration — the Cubs say they plan to start talks this spring on a possible long-term deal for their top pitcher.

It was the most specific sign yet of the organization-building vision new president Theo Epstein and his crew have in mind as they opened their first spring training in charge Saturday at Fitch Park.

And it might even suggest a perceived timeline for contending again.

‘‘We focused really hard on getting the one-year number done a few weeks ago,’’ general manager Jed Hoyer said of the $9.5 million deal struck the day of Garza’s scheduled arbitration hearing. ‘‘We didn’t have any kind of long-term discussions before that, but certainly there was some dialogue about possibly having some long-term discussions at some point maybe this spring. . . . I think we probably will sit down and talk.’’

Garza, 28, wasn’t available to media. He told two reporters Friday that he didn’t want to talk about contract issues but was open to considering a long-term deal.

‘‘We’ve said many times he’s the kind of guy we need,’’ Hoyer said. ‘‘We need more Matt Garzas, not less. We need a rotation full of those guys, so if we can work something out, that’d be wonderful.’’

Not to overfeed the beast of spring optimism as camp opens, but that need for Garza on a long-term contract doesn’t exist if the brass intends to spend much of that potential contract length continuing to rebuild.

But if they envision a short-term ascension through the division, then Garza — the 2008 American League Championship Series MVP — becomes a key to any postseason thoughts.

‘‘I think patience is important, but urgency is important, as well,’’ Epstein said of the building process he sees. ‘‘The goal of the 2012 Cubs is to win the World Series. And our goal as an organization is to build an organization that competes on an annual basis in the postseason and gives ourselves a chance to win the World Series. . . .

‘‘There aren’t going to be any shortcuts. We’re looking at the big picture, and we’re building this thing the right way. But urgency, of course. And the goal is clear.’’

Whether the Cubs are ready any time soon to score enough runs to compete, the team’s new field staff is high on the depth of young starting pitching.

With Garza leading a veteran top three that also includes Ryan Dempster and newly acquired left-hander Paul Maholm, the first four spots are all but locked in. That includes Chris Volstad, the 25-year-old South Florida native acquired in the Carlos Zambrano trade from the Miami Marlins.

Volstad is a powerful right-hander the team feels will benefit from a fresh start away from his hometown influences.

That leaves one spot between incumbent Randy Wells, promising newcomer Travis Wood (trade from Cincinnati) and potential bullpen convert Jeff Samardzija, who has impressed the new staff with his unofficial early-spring work and should get a significant shot at a starting job.

‘‘There’s nothing better than competition,’’ new manager Dale Sveum said. ‘‘And sometimes when you have a lot of it, it really prepares you for the season.’’

And if these new-era Cubs get what they hope for from even a few of these new pitchers in camp, then, well, that brings it all back to why they want to assure Garza is still around for the next few years.

‘‘Obviously, you’ve got Garza at the top,’’ veteran outfielder Reed Johnson said as he drew comparisons between this year’s staff and the last one that pitched the Cubs into the playoffs four years ago. ‘‘In 2008, every time we ran out a starter, I felt we had a chance to win that game, and I feel when you look at the starting staff we have now, when you run them out there on a daily basis, you have a chance to win that night.

‘‘I think that’s a key mentally for this team, as well.’’

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