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Second things first: Cubs focused on pick

Anthony Rizzo blasts home run fifth inning Saturday. | Scott Cunningham~Getty Images

Anthony Rizzo blasts a home run in the fifth inning Saturday. | Scott Cunningham~Getty Images

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Updated: May 8, 2013 7:13AM



ATLANTA — Forget the $500 million in renovations and hotel construction the Cubs plan to tout in the coming week. Forget the games against World Series champs and American League pennant winners in the next 11 days.

There’s really only one significant thing on the team’s baseball calendar during their opening homestand, and that’s the set of scouting meetings they’ll hold to discuss the short list of prospects they’ll consider for the No. 2 overall pick on June 6.

Considering the fast-changing landscape of player-acquisition options in baseball, the Cubs might not have a more important draft pick for years — especially if it results in an impact starting pitcher.

“The avenues to acquire talent, they’re closing up,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said.

More teams are locking up more good players through free-agency years, including small-market clubs such as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, which have assured control over young stars Andrew McCutchen through age 31 and Joey Votto through age 41, respectively, with extensions signed within weeks of each other last year.

At the other end of the acquisition spectrum, Major League Baseball has strictly capped draft-bonus spending and much of amateur international spending.

“So many players get wrapped up now that it does make drafting and developing that much more important,’’ Hoyer said.

“It’s always been important, but I think now that the free-agent market offers less of a chance to solve your problems, you have to focus that much more internally.”

For a team in desperate need of top-shelf starting pitching if it plans to contend during the life of team president Theo Epstein’s five-year contract, June 6 suddenly becomes the biggest date of his regime.

Hoyer said that among the half-dozen or so prospects the Cubs are looking most closely at for that No. 2 pick, half are high-ceiling pitching prospects — including Stanford senior Mark Appel, whom Epstein scouted Friday in a win over USC.

Appel, widely considered the top pitching prospect in the draft, turned down $3.8 million from Pittsburgh last June after he fell from a projected No. 1 pick to eighth. MLB has allotted the Cubs $10.6 million in total bonuses this year, with a little more than $6 million of it allotted to cover the first-round pick.

College pitchers Sean Manaea, Jonathan Gray and Ryne Stanek also are rated among the elite arms available.

On the position-player side, one of the reasons Hoyer was in Atlanta with the club was because top team officials worked out two of the top hitters in the draft on Thursday: Atlanta-area prep outfielders Clint Frazier and Austin Meadows.

“It’s a really important opportunity to try to bring in an impact player or an impact pitcher into our organization,” Hoyer said of the high pick.

“We’ve been really open about the fact that we need a lot more pitching in the organization. Whether that comes with the second pick or not, we’re very open to taking a hitter at No. 2. But I think it’s a safe bet we’re going to pound away at pitching throughout the draft like we did last year.’’

NOTE: Third baseman Ian Stewart, who was sidelined all spring because of a quad strain, was to DH in an extended spring game Saturday, getting his first competitive at-bats since March 14.

Once he shows he’s capable of playing full speed in the field, presumably in the next few days, it could put him on a fast track to return from the disabled list, manager Dale Sveum said.

“You’re looking at two weeks to three weeks,” Sveum said.



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