The Chicago Cubs did more than put together a starting rotation this spring, they put Phase 1 of their reconstruction project front and center.
Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer went out this winter and grabbed some young arms that are valuable not only because they are under club contract control for a few seasons. It didn’t hurt that they also got a reliever from last season to step up and pitch like his life depended on it.
Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza are the holdover anchors of the rotation, but new guys Chris Volstad and Paul Maholm will join them, along with Jeff Samardzija, who was one of the better stories of the spring.
Getting his third, and possibly last, chance to earn a spot in the starting rotation, Samardzija seized the moment. He arrived in Arizona in November to attack the project and was raising eyebrows from the opening day of camp. He accomplished his goal with six shutout innings against the Cleveland Indians just a week before camp broke.
Maholm, who signed a one-year, $4.25 million deal this offseason, was the steadiest Cubs starter this spring. He will pitch out of the No. 5 spot in the rotation only because he fell behind early in camp with a nasty flu bug and the fifth spot gives him as much time to prepare as possible.
Volstad grew up in Florida and has been property of the Miami Marlins for his entire professional career. Leaving the comforts of home seems to be agreeing with him as he easily grabbed the No. 4 spot in the rotation.
The staff looks solid, but there will still be a wait-and-see approach. The Cubs’ starting staff also looked solid leaving Arizona last season and things blew up on the group quickly.
Three keys to success
• Dempster will get the Opening Day start for the second consecutive season, but must avoid the April collapse he experienced in 2011. By the time he recovered the Cubs were in a hole they would never emerge from.
• Garza might be the No. 2 starter, but he has the best chance of pitching like a staff ace. Will trade rumors or talks of a contract extension throw his focus out of whack? His spring was mediocre but he focused more on preparation and his approach rather than the results.
• Samardzija seems to be the biggest mystery among this group. Will it be a long adjustment period to his new role? Will he embrace it and be off and running from the beginning? Will he ultimately collapse under the weight of a starter’s workload? His biggest lesson this spring seemed to come when he tried to overpower the Rockies and was crushed in the process. He came back in his next outing changing speeds effectively and pitched six shutout innings.