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Matt Garza holds key for Cubs’ rebuilding efforts

Matt Garza.  |  Mike Ehrmann~Getty Images

Matt Garza. | Mike Ehrmann~Getty Images

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Cubs at Brewers

The facts: 7:10, Ch. 9, 720-AM.

The pitchers: Matt Garza (2-1, 2.67 ERA)
vs. Randy Wolf (2-3, 6.68).

The rest of the series

Saturday: 12:05 p.m., Fox-32, 720-AM. Chris Vol­stad (0-4, 6.55) vs. Shaun Marcum (1-1, 3.41).

Sunday: 1:10 p.m., Ch. 9, 720-AM. Jeff Samardzija (4-1, 3.03) vs. TBA.

Updated: June 12, 2012 8:26AM

Is the Cubs’ pitching staff actually as good as it has looked the last three weeks?

Is its recent success, particularly from the starters, a sign of what could be building on the North Side in the next few years?

The answers to both questions start with the guy trying to pitch the Cubs out of last place Friday in Milwaukee.

It’s easy to forget that with the majors’ best team ERA since
April 21 (2.51) — a stretch that includes three series wins against —division leaders — the Cubs are still in last place.

But their upward mobility figures to depend disproportionately on Matt Garza, their best pitcher, and what they decide to do with him in the next 13 months.

Contrary to speculation that the Cubs plan to trade Garza at the deadline if they don’t re-sign him to a multiyear extension, team insiders say they’ve set no such timetables. Considering that he’s under club control through next season with another year of arbitration eligibility, Cubs brass has ample time to measure his value against the market and the progress of the rest of the organization.

This seems certain: If the Cubs sign Garza to an extension, they plan to build with him.

Those who know how team president Theo Epstein operates know that much, including the pitcher who helped win a World Series and a year later signed a three-year extension at a ‘‘hometown discount’’ — then was traded after being told he was in the team’s long-term plans.

Cincinnati Reds starter Bronson Arroyo still isn’t sure why Epstein traded him to the Reds for Wily Mo Pena in 2006, but he’s quick to point out: ‘‘He wasn’t the guy that told me that there’s a good chance they wouldn’t be trading me.’’

Arroyo signed the deal with co-general managers Ben Cherington and Josh Byrnes after Epstein left the Red Sox during the 2005-06 off-season over a front-office rift.

‘‘But he was the guy who pushed the button on the trade after he came back,’’ Arroyo said. ‘‘It definitely made me more tradeable because a team like the Reds knew they could control me for $4 million a year. It made me very valuable to a lot of mid- to lower-range teams.

‘‘That being said, I can’t imagine if they’re looking to lock Garza up that it wouldn’t be for the reason that they want him to pitch for them for a long time.’’

Arroyo seems sure of that for two reasons: Epstein’s honesty with players and the quality of competition in the National League Central.

‘‘Theo’s been one of my favorite guys I’ve ever been around in the game, period,’’ said Arroyo, who was claimed off waivers from the Pittsburgh Pirates by Epstein in 2003. ‘‘He was straight up with me from the day that I got put in the Red Sox organization.’’

‘‘There’s always things in the game that you can’t talk about to everyone, and if those things are present, I think he just goes silent. He’s just not going to say anything.’’

Like when he took over as Cubs president and talked to Jeff Samardzija about his future but not Andrew Cashner, who was traded a couple of months later.

In Garza’s case, Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer have made it clear to Garza and the public that they see him as a valuable pitcher with the kind of ability, skill and upside to build around.

‘‘If you get good starting pitching in this division, it could take you all the way through,’’ he said. ‘‘Whether that can win you a World Series or not, I’m not real sure.’’

But if Samardzija (4-1, 3.03 ERA) proves he’s the starting pitcher he has appeared to be through six starts, then the Cubs have two front-line starters.

With any depth around that, a competitive window starts to open.

‘‘That can take you to the promised land in itself [if] you get three guys doing that on a consistent basis,’’ Arroyo said.

That’s a strong school of thought running through the front office, say sources.

‘‘I see them, they’re kind of at a crossroads now, where they need someone like Theo to kind of take direction and say, ‘This is the way we’re going to go in order to try to win this thing.’ ’’

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