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Could Cubs’ glut of starting pitchers lead to trade?

Updated: March 21, 2012 3:58PM

MESA, Ariz. – The eye-opening emergence of Jeff Samardzija as a starting pitcher for the Cubs could turn a rotation candidate into a very expensive Class AAA pitcher by Opening Day – or a valuable trade commodity.


But the Cubs don’t seem willing – at least not yet -- to use that apparent depth to make a trade as spring training winds down.


``It’s a hard thing to say,’’ general manager Jed Hoyer said during a wide-ranging discussion with beat writers this week. ``I feel whenever you feel you have pitching depth, don’t ever really talk about it out loud, because you don’t.’’


A sudden lack of starting pitching depth when Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner were injured the first week of last season buried the 2011 season before it had much of a chance to start. Hoyer and team president Theo Epstein said when they took over in the off-season their goal was to be able to go eight or nine deep in bona fide big-league starters.


The result of that stockpiling effort – and Samardzija’s spring surge – is that Wells and Rodrigo Lopez could find themselves fighting the next 10 days for one long-relief spot while the other heads to AAA Iowa, despite strong performances from both this spring. That’s assuming that Chris Volstad, who has mated Samardzija nearly pitch for pitch, wins the other rotation opening.


Lopez is in camp as a non-roster player on a split contract. Wells makes $2.7 million no matter where he pitches, raising the obvious trade question. (If Wells beats out Volstad, by the way, Volstad is owed $2.66 million no matter where he pitches).


``In theory, on paper, you’re right,’’ Hoyer said of the trade opportunity the perceived luxury of depth creates, ``but things usually have a way of working out that way. I think we do feel good about starting pitching depth.’’


Still, Hoyer said, a trade in these final two weeks before the season opens is possible. The Cubs could use another proven reliever, and they have just enough depth in a few position areas to use in trades.


``I think every team probably looks at [possible late-spring upgrades]. Those conversations will really heat up among teams the last 10 days or so,’’ Hoyer said. ``I wouldn’t be surprised if we made a move. But I also think we have the pieces that we wouldn’t need to.


``We’ll certainly be active in those conversations. I don’t think we’d be doing our job if we weren’t.’’


Whether a deal gets done before the opener, Hoyer said the new front office left plenty of room in the big-league payroll budget to add if the in-house optimism about this team maintains toward the July trading deadline.


Even with more than $22 million tied up in money still owed to Carlos Pena, Carlos Silva and to the Miami Marlins for Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs’ Opening Day, 25-man payroll projects to about $114 million – roughly $20 million less than last year.


``We are going to come in a little bit under where we were last year, but we had plenty of flexibility over the course of the winter to make the moves that we needed to make,’’ Hoyer said. ``And we left some flexibility so we can make some moves over the course of the season if we need to make them.’’


Not that many outside observers expect much in the way high achievement from the Cubs after back-to-back fifth-place seasons and a four-for-none exodus of All-Star players.


But baseball did add another playoff berth in each league. And Hoyer looks, again, at the starting pitching depth for at least one reason for optimism.


``I think we’re going to throw a good starting pitcher at the other team every night, which is a good way to start,’’ he said. ``That cures a lot of ills when you know the first six innings are going to be quality, strike-throwing innings [by] a good starting pitcher. …


``And I think we’re going to be aggressive offensively. I think there’s a lot of talent on the field. …


``I don’t see any reason why we can’t be incredibly competitive this year.’’

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