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Starter depth gives Cubs many options

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals

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Updated: April 23, 2012 11:42AM

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

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 in the first week buried the 2011 season before it had much of a chance to start. When they took over the front office in the offseason, Hoyer and team president Theo Epstein said 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 might find themselves fighting for one long-relief spot, with the loser going to Class AAA Iowa, despite strong performances from both this spring. That assumes Chris Volstad, who has matched Samard-
zija nearly pitch for pitch, wins the other rotation opening.

Lopez is in camp as a non-roster player on a split contract. Wells will make $2.7 million no matter where he pitches, which raises 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 the final two weeks of camp 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],’’ Hoyer said. ‘‘Those conversations will really heat up among teams the last 10 days or so. 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 has left plenty of room for the big-league payroll to grow if the
in-house optimism about the Cubs proves to be justified.

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

‘‘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 of high achievement from the Cubs after back-to-back fifth-place seasons and a four-for-none exodus of All-Star players, but Major League Baseball did add another playoff berth in each league. And Hoyer looks at the starting-pitching depth as 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. ‘‘It 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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