St. Louis Cardinals' starting pitcher Michael Wacha throws against the Chicago Cubs in the first inning of a baseball game, Sunday, April 13, 2014, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Bill Boyce)
Updated: April 14, 2014 3:33PM
While most Cub fans wait with anticipation for the Big Four — Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora — to lead a player-development renaissance that turns Theo Epstein’s woebegone Cubs into a perennial contender, there’s another faction of Cub loyalists that considers Epstein and Jed Hoyer flim-flam men whose baseball judgment is not nearly as keen as they would like us to believe.
Edwin Jackson continues to be Exhibits A, B and C for that faction and that contention. The signing of a pitcher with such a well-established record of fool’s gold to a four-year, $52 million contract in January of 2013 reeked before the ink was even dry. A fairly predictably dreadful season in which Jackson habitually pitched poorly enough to lose — either falling behind early or blowing sizable leads — made it clear that Epstein & Co. were guilty of either signing a guy off some cherry-picked numbers or terribly misjudging Jackson’s ability to compete.
Now manager Rick Renteria is adding to the folly with an unfortunate defense of yet another losing effort in which Jackson pitched just poorly enough to lose. Given a 2-0 lead in the first inning against the Cardinals and star-in-the-making Michael Wacha on Sunday, Jackson allowed three runs in the second. After the Cubs tied it up against Wacha in the top of the fourth, Jackson allowed a triple to the very next batter he faced — No. 8 hitter Peter Bourjos — and allowed a run that gave the Cardinals a 4-3 lead and ultimately led to the Cubs’ 6-4 loss at Busch Stadium.
As Cub fans suffer through another miserable season while the Big Four develop, is it too much to ask them to at least win the games they can win? And isn’t Edwin Jackson the $52 million veteran among the first players responsible for making that happen? Yet Jackson was given two chances to do that Sunday and blew both of them.
‘’It doesn’t matter,’’ Renteria said after the game. ‘’He went out there and grinded it out. We’re still in a limited bullpen situation and he ate up innings for us. And I think all things being equal, he kept us in the ballgame.’’
It doesn’t matter? Really? Did the Cubs hire a manager or a babysitter to replace Dale Sveum? Because Renteria seems more concerned with eating up innings to allow the Cubs to tread water until 2016 or 2017 than he is with the failings of a pitcher who consistently shows that he is incapable of competing and winning.
Apparently, some teams have an eye for that difference-making quality and some don’t. Why is it that while the Cubs were shoring up their beleaguered pitching staff with Edwin Jackson, the Cardinals inserted the 22-year-old Wacha into their rotation and immediately struck gold?
Drafted out of Texas A&M in 2012 — 13 picks after the Cubs took the 18-year-old Almora sixth overall and sent him to rookie ball, stamped with an ETA of 2017 — Wacha is the kind of competitor teams like the Cubs need more than anything else. With the Cardinals facing elimination against the Pirates in the NLDS last season, Wacha pitched a one-hitter in a 2-1 victory. In the NLCS against the Dodgers, Wacha twice beat Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw — allowing no runs and seven hits in 13 2/3 innings. He beat the Red Sox in Game 2 of the World Series before finally crapping out in Game 6. But that didn’t come close to diminishing a glorious postseason run that Almora — and Baez, Bryant and Soler, for that matter — might never duplicate.
On Sunday at Busch Stadium, Wacha was beatable but he was not beaten. After Jackson allowed a run to give the Cardinals a 4-3 lead in the fifth, Wacha retired six consecutive batters and seven out of eight as the Cardinals turned to their bullpen and pulled away for the victory. Winners win. What a concept.
The Cubs’ reinvigorated farm system is encouraging, but it’s going to take much more than that to turn this thing around. It’s going to take a lot of pitching. Or more precisely a lot of pitchers — guys with a knack for allowing one fewer run than they allow. You and I can find innings-eaters. Theo, Jed & Co. get paid the big bucks to find guys who can win. It’s never too early to start finding those who can and eliminate those who can’t.