- Bruce Levine, Chicago baseball beat reporter
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PHOENIX -- What initially looked like a deep, if not spectacular, starting rotation for the Chicago Cubs appears questionable at best with two weeks left until opening day.
Freak injuries and slow starts for some of the staff have depleted a once-decent inventory of starters that the Cubs front office put together during the winter. Plan A had newcomers Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman, Scott Baker and Carlos Villanueva joining a returning core group led by Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood and Matt Garza.
Certainly it was reasonable to assume that Baker and Garza might take longer to find their grooves this spring. Both pitchers were coming off of elbow problems -- in Baker’s case, ligament replacement surgery and in Garza’s, extensive elbow rehab.
The team’s inventory started to erode quickly. Garza injured his left side on Feb. 17. An aborted return to a soft-toss regiment sent the Cubs back to the drawing board as they wondered how to get Garza back on the mound after he reinjured his side. The bizarre side strain convoluted the real issue of whether or not his elbow would hold up after missing the last two months of 2012.
Baker made his first game appearance on Sunday since undergoing Tommy John surgery last April. Six members of the Cubs front office, including president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, watched the former Minnesota Twins pitcher labor through a less-than-competitive outing. Baker was able to retire just one batter of six that he faced.
“Trust me, there were some nerves there,” Baker said. “You know I haven’t done it in a while. I still love this game and I enjoy pitching. I want to compete, but at the same time you have to combat those feelings. I made some good pitches and I didn’t, but it just didn’t work out today.”
Baker, whose fastball topped out at 85 mph, looks to be a month away from competing in major league games. The problem in Baker’s case is not whether he will stay healthy, but rather if he will regain his arm strength that had him throwing consistently 91-92 mph before the elbow injury.
The Cubs had been planning all along for a mid-April return for Baker. Garza is now projected sometime around May 1. The main concern for the rotation at this point has been the below-average spring for both Feldman and Villiaueva. Normally spring training is a time to get your work in and not worry about results. That theory gets challenged when pitchers you are counting on are new to an organization.
Staying healthy and competing at a higher level will be the focus of the Cubs’ iffy rotation over the next two weeks. Jackson, Wood and Samardzjia have had solid outings for the most part, so it is not all doom and gloom as spring training begins to wind down.