Rebuilt pitching staff foundation for improvement
Offseason focus on veteran hurlers expected to stabilize North Siders
MESA, Ariz. -- Saying that the Chicago Cubs should be better than they were last season is something like saying that next month should be April.
But in the case of the Cubs, what is needed is something resembling that sort of March-becomes-April certainty. They are in Year II of a complete reconstruction. In order to rebuild they first had to deconstruct. That is what 2012 was about and the 101 losses were a painful result of the process.
The Cubs had some serious pitching deficiencies last season. They were 14th in the National League in team earned run average at 4.51. They were far from that bad at the start, but eventually they traded stable veteran starters Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm, lost Matt Garza to an injury, then shut down Jeff Samardzija to limit his innings. Suitable replacements were not on hand in sufficient numbers.
In the offseason, the Cubs added some proven starting pitching, in Scott Baker, Scott Feldman and Edwin Jackson. They also added Carlos Villanueva, who has had success in both starting and relief.
Garza is out at the moment with a strained lat. Baker is coming back from Tommy John surgery. Cubs manager Dale Sveum said Wednesday that he expected Baker to be pitching for the Cubs by mid-April, and Garza to return by late April or early May. In the meantime, the Cubs can move Villanueva and Travis Wood into the rotation.
One way or another, this should represent considerable improvement for the Cubs rotation over what it was at the end of the 2012 season. The Cubs have also added reliever Kyuji Fujikawa, whose numbers in Japan became the stuff of legend.
When Sveum was asked if the Cubs pitching had improved "substantially" he responded: "Substantially, who knows until it's all done? But the one thing we're going to be able to do is we've got guys with track records, guys with stuff in the media guide, we've got guys who throw strikes. Last year, we had trouble with all those things.
"The youth we had to put out there, and guys not throwing strikes was a big thorn. Now we should have a bullpen that should throw strikes. Obviously, the rotation, they've all been there before, they've done it, we don't have to worry about the deer-in-headlights factors. We don't have to deal with that this year like we had to last year."
The Cubs made the largest commitment to Jackson, $52 million over four years. He worked five solid innings Wednesday, giving up just one run, in what became a 2-0 Cubs loss to the Rockies.
"It's definitely a start where you take it in a positive direction," Jackson said. "We have a couple weeks [of Spring Training] left. This is the time when people pick up the tempo and become a little more aggressive."
Jackson went on to describe the clubhouse atmosphere as "loose," said his new teammates were an easy group to get along with and predicted "a fun year" with everybody performing up to his potential.
The pitching moves are not the only improvement the Cubs have made, although the pitching improvements are typically the ones that can have the largest and quickest impact. A year of experience for stars in the making such as first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro, is a plus all by itself. The Cubs have added some quality and some left-handed balance to their lineup.
"On paper, we've filled some holes offensively, and we've got guys who have another year under their belt," Sveum said. "We're going to have four lefties in the lineup ... five possibly if [catcher Dioner] Navarro's in there, to where we can keep the line moving and get pitch counts up because you've got left-handers in the lineup. It won't be as easy of a lineup to pitch to."
There was more good news Thursday when Castro returned, briefly but successfully, from a tight left hamstring that had kept him out of action since Feb. 27. Castro repeatedly made the point that he wanted to play.
"I don't want to be in the training room my whole life," he said.
Castro may still be a work in progress, but at least the potential for his progress is truly significant.
It may be difficult to measure the intangible gains that have been made by the Cubs under the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer administration. It may very well be true that the Cubs are conducting themselves with more professionalism and playing with more accountability under Sveum's leadership. But that kind of thing tends to be obscured when the pitching doesn't hold up and the club goes 18-42 from Aug. 1 to the bitter end.
This is why the Cubs could use tangible improvement in their record. With the offseason moves they have made, improvement is likely. How that translates into more victories is never known before the fact.
If franchise management decides that progress isn't significant and goes back to trading established talent in return for a larger share of the future, then Cubs fans will once again have to immerse themselves in the concept of delayed gratification. These fans, already all too familiar with this concept, are looking for that joyous time when the better future suddenly becomes the present.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.