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Rotation is top need in free agency for cash-flush Cubs

WashingtNationals starting pitcher EdwJacksthrows against PhiladelphiPhillies first inning baseball game Wednesday May 23 2012 Philadelphia. (AP Photo/H. Rumph Jr)

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Edwin Jackson throws against the Philadelphia Phillies in the first inning of a baseball game on Wednesday, May 23, 2012, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/H. Rumph Jr)

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Updated: October 29, 2012 6:41AM

DENVER — Between expiring contract commitments and non-tender candidates, the Cubs’ front office has more money to spend this offseason than it’s had since Tribune Co. handed Jim Hendry a blank check to fix that 96-loss season six years ago.

With this year’s team recording its 96th loss in a 6-0 defeat to the Colorado Rockies on Wednesday night, the question isn’t whether there’s money to make fixes but how much willingness there is to put a more competitive team on the field next season.

“We’re obviously going to be active in the free-agent market. I don’t think there’s any question about that,’’ general manager Jed Hoyer said.

“A big part of our research and a big part of our work is evaluating the guys that are likely to be free agents. Exactly how much money we spend in part will be determined by the market and where it goes. We have some money to spend, and that’s an area we’re going to focus on heavily.’’

Hoyer reiterated the point manager Dale Sveum made that the in-house evaluations of prospects and reclamation cases are done, and the front office has meetings planned with Sveum, coaches and players over the next week and into the days immediately following the season.

The Cubs have some need at third base and in the bullpen, but the overwhelming need is in the rotation, where only Jeff Samardzija and, presumably, Matt Garza are assured of returning.

Garza still hasn’t begun a throwing program, and the stress reaction in his elbow hasn’t fully healed, Hoyer said, adding that medical reports so far have been “positive.’’

Because the nature of the injury doesn’t involve a rehabilitation process, his prognosis is all about leaving enough time to rebuild stamina after a long layoff.

“We’re certainly hopeful he’s 100 percent [for spring training]. We won’t be able to really assess that until later on,’’ Hoyer said.

Meanwhile, the in-house candidates next in line are Travis Wood (6-12) and Arodys Vizcaino, the prospect acquired from the Atlanta Braves in the Paul Maholm trade who’s only six months removed from Tommy John surgery — and who will be on an innings limit as low as 100 next year even if he does make the rotation.

The starter on Wednesday, Jason Berken (0-2), gave up nine hits and six earned runs in four innings. Three Rockies pitchers limited the Cubs to five hits.

“We certainly have to be aggressive with starting pitching over the course of the winter,’’ said Hoyer, whose payroll commitments for 2013 so far involve only four players and just over $40 million.

But enough to compete for the likes of potential free agents Edwin Jackson, Shaun Marcum, Anibal Sanchez? More than one of them? Given the financial muscle the Cubs will have, the question might boil down to how strong the desire is to give the field staff a reasonable chance to be competitive next year, which is obviously is at least a year or more earlier than the system overhaul is expected to be done.

Few would argue the wisdom of big-money, long-term contracts for free-agent pitchers, but overpaying on short-term, front-loaded contracts could be a way to use the winter largesse creatively — if not slow down the attendance bleed that led to this year’s end of the Cubs’ streak of 3-million seasons.

Consider, too, that starting in 2014, every team in baseball starts receiving the recently negotiated national TV increases that average $25 million a year per team over the life of those deals.

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