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Cubs facing space jam with five pitchers, two starting spots

Rodrigo Lopez

Rodrigo Lopez

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Updated: April 14, 2012 8:12AM

MESA, Ariz. — It’s spring training’s version of natural selection.

Two open starting spots, five pitchers fighting for them. Competition ensues, and at some point, there will be separation.

What that means at the end of March is that two people will be on the plane leaving for Chicago with smiles on their faces.

The rest? They’ll try to figure out what went wrong and how to make it better, and they’ll have plenty of time to do it in the bullpen or down in the minors.

Until then, welcome to the logjam.

“Yeah, it’s awesome, man,’’ Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster said of the battle for two jobs in the rotation.

Sure, it’s awesome for Dempster because he already has one of those jobs, along with Matt Garza and Paul Maholm.

For Rodrigo Lopez, Jeff Samardzija, Chris Volstad, Randy Wells and Travis Wood, every outing is fasten-the-seatbelt, don’t-blink time.

“That’s the way it is all the time anyway. You’ve got to perform,’’ Volstad said Monday. “It’s a game about performance and helping the team, so anytime you go out there, you have to do your job or that could be it. I don’t take this any differently.

“It’s good to have that competition pushing you, but as far as feeling like you are being weighed every time you go out there, I think that happens during the season, during spring training, wherever you end up playing. You are always weighed on how you’re doing.’’

True, but in the first year of the Theo Epstein plan, you’re not only weighed, you’re dissected under the sabermetrics scalpel. This surplus of pitchers was collected for a reason. Call it bargaining power come July.

Dempster will be a free agent, and Garza will be eligible for arbitration for one more year. That will make Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer happy come trade-deadline time.

There’s a reason the Garza extension talk is getting almost zero response from Hoyer. Why should the Cubs extend the biggest bargaining chip they might have? If they’re going to rebuild, don’t leave a few valuable paintings on the wall just to appease the homeowner. Rip it all down.

The best thing Dempster can do is pitch well and catch the eye of a contender, making him a $7 million rental midway through the season.

Because one thing the Cubs have is starting pitching. They might have mediocre options, but this is what a rebuild looks like. It’s not always pretty.

One option that won’t be explored is a six-man rotation. So for Lopez, Samardzija, Volstad, Wells and Wood, this spring is pass/fail.

“I don’t see a six-man, especially early in the year when you have extra days off,’’ Hoyer said when asked about a possible logjam of starters. “I hope we have that problem because the guys pitch well, not because they struggled down the stretch.

“I would love that quandary, so to speak, because we’re going to need eight, nine, 10 starters this year if we’re lucky, so the idea that we have seven guys competing for five spots, it’s an Opening Day issue, not a seasonlong issue.’’

Right now, it’s a spring training issue.

At least for five guys.

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