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updated: 5/25/2014 11:57 PM

Cubs have shown ability to identify pitching bargains

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  • Cubs starting pitcher Travis Wood is a perfect example of what the front office has been doing with its pitching plans.

      Cubs starting pitcher Travis Wood is a perfect example of what the front office has been doing with its pitching plans.
    Associated Press

 
By Len Kasper
Special to the Daily Herald

With all the elbows blowing out around baseball, there is a renewed conversation about how to protect pitchers' arms or whether they can be truly protected.

The mercurial nature of pitching-arm health also might be making more teams shudder at long-term contracts for pitchers because it is starting to feel like if a guy hasn't blown out he probably will at some point.

This discussion is particularly germane to the Cubs' situation because it is no secret that while their system is deep in position players, they don't possess a lot of high-ceiling pitchers. The assumption has been that when the Cubs are ready to truly compete, they will have to "buy" starting pitching rather than develop it.

Based on the track record of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, they have shown an ability to identify good short-term bargains via trades or free agency and, while it hasn't gone perfectly, what they've done so far might be instructive moving forward.

Let's check what they have done on the starting-pitching market since 2012.

They made what at the time was viewed as a controversial trade when they sent reliever Sean Marshall to Cincinnati in exchange for a package of players, including a young left-hander named Travis Wood.

Many Cubs fans were baffled as to why the club would move its best reliever, but internally it was a no-brainer to trade a short reliever who was due for a relatively big payday for a young starter whom the team could control at a reasonable rate for several more years.

That one was a big win as Wood became an all-star in his second year here.

They traded Carlos Zambrano to the Marlins and got 6-foot-8 right-hander Chris Volstad in return. That one didn't work out as Volstad put up an ugly ERA in 21 starts in 2012. The Cubs were simply looking to move Zambrano at the time, so we can call that deal a wash.

They signed Paul Maholm in 2012 to a one-year contract worth less than $5 million and got excellent value out of him before trading him to Atlanta, which brought in return the intriguing Arodys Vizcaino.

Same goes for Scott Feldman, who signed for $6 million in 2013. He eventually was flipped to Baltimore for another interesting haul, including Jake Arrieta, whom the Cubs control for a few more seasons.

Jason Hammel is looking like this year's version of Maholm and Feldman. He got $6 million and so far has earned every penny of it. Whether he is here long term remains to be seen.

The one signing in this process that hasn't panned out to this point is the Edwin Jackson deal. The Cubs gave him four years and $52 million in December 2012 after coming up short in their bid for Anibal Sanchez.

Jackson would be the first to tell you 2013 was a disaster. But he has been better this season (his last start killed his ERA) and he is durable. He has time but certainly needs to be a lot better to make his contract look more palatable than it felt after last season.

When you add up all the pluses and minuses, you have to say the inexact science of buying starting pitching has been a strength of this front office.

No, the Cubs haven't acquired an ace via this process (rather, they inherited one in Jeff Samardzija) and their ability to find or develop one (or keep Samardzija) will no doubt be the biggest piece of the puzzle.

But you cannot win without starting-pitching depth, and the Cubs have shown a penchant for filling out their rotation with generally effective, affordable and (knock on wood) healthy guys.

Amid a rash of broken-down pitchers almost everywhere you look, they have thrived in that marketplace, something every Cubs fan should hope continues.

• Len Kasper is the TV play-by-play broadcaster for the Chicago Cubs. Follow him on Twitter@LenKasper and check out his baseball-blog/ with Jim Deshaies at wgntv.com.

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