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No Carlos Zambrano cranks up Cubs’ need to find starting pitching

Casey Coleman is expected remaCubs’ rotatifor rest season. |  Jonathan Daniel~Getty Images

Casey Coleman is expected to remain in the Cubs’ rotation for the rest of the season. | Jonathan Daniel~Getty Images

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:29AM

HOUSTON — When there was some doubt about whether the Cubs would get a contract extension done with Carlos Zambrano in 2007, veterans such as Derrek Lee lobbied the front office to get him re-signed.

‘‘We need him if we want to win,’’ they said.

It’s been a long time since anyone around the Cubs said anything like that about Zambrano. But as they prepare for a post-Z era — and if they want to win at any reasonable level next year — they need something to refill the sizeable, if unreliable, hole in the rotation.

The Cubs already felt they would be in the market for at least one starting pitcher.

The task may be far easier said than done, considering the thin free-agent pitching market anticipated and the limited inventory of high-end prospects the Cubs might be able and willing to trade after spending heavily on Matt Garza last January.

As Garza said the other day, ‘‘I can’t throw two games.’’

The immediate impact of Zambrano’s suspension after quitting on the team Friday night is that it raises the stakes on evaluating what the Cubs have in-house.

‘‘Definitely, definitely,’’ pitching coach Mark Riggins said. ‘‘[Ryan Dempster’s] under contract, Garza’s under contract, [Randy] Wells is in an arbitration year, we have rights to [Casey] Coleman, and then Rodrigo [Lopez] — we’ll see how it finishes out for him.’’

The process begins in earnest tonight with the re-re-re-return of Casey Coleman. He’s starting against the Houston Astros in Zambrano’s spot and is expected to stay in the rotation the rest of the season.

‘‘He’s going to get an opportunity here,’’ Riggins said. ‘‘Whether he falls into that place or not, I think he’s totally capable of doing that. And Wellsy’s made some nice strides and been very consistent here the last three or four starts. And Rodrigo, he’s fitting the bill right now for what he’s doing, and that’s up to the front office when we sit down at the end of the year and talk about everybody.’’

Lopez says he wants to return. Coleman says that despite early-season struggles, he’s at a point on the mound where he feels a lot like he did during his promising 4-2, 4.11 ERA debut for the Cubs late last season.

And former first-round draft pick Andrew Cashner looms in the wings for a possible run at a starting spot next spring. He’s expected back next month in the bullpen from a season-long rehab process on his strained shoulder.

Nothing else looks particularly promising in the system.

And whatever you may think of Zambrano, these are his numbers over roughly the last calendar year: 17-7 with a 3.71 ERA and 216 innings in 35 starts.

Granted, those numbers are skewed by his 8-0, 1.41 finish last year, and he has been inconsistent this year on and off the field.

Bottom line is it’s not an insignificant hole to fill for a club that already was looking for help.

‘‘We’ll just kind of evaluate it here at the end of the year and see how everything falls into place for next year,’’ Riggins said.

Riggins, by the way, hasn’t heard from Zambrano or tried to contact him.

‘‘I’m just kind of leaving it up to Jim and the front office to handle this whole thing,’’ said Riggins, who also said he had a good relationship with Z. ‘‘I’m just working with the guys that are here daily.’’

Meanwhile, the Cubs haven’t seemed to suffer much in Zambrano’s absence, winning three straight since his departure before losing 6-5 to the Houston Astros on a walk-off grand slam Tuesday. They got seven strong innings from Dempster (11-8) and homers by Tyler Colvin and Aramis Ramirez.

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