The Chicago Cubs had their first off-day in three weeks on Thursday and it was well earned. Or at least it was for one part of the team.
The starting staff has been the one pleasant surprise of the team in the early going. Their 3.43 ERA ranks third in the National League and sixth in all of baseball. They've been nothing short of great with opponents hitting just .216 against them. That's the best in baseball. It would be hard to find an executive who still doesn't believe it's the most important and hardest thing to find in the game. It's the irony of the Cubs season so far. They have a starting staff but not much else.
With a little help from Jeff Samardzija, let's play the "what if" game. What if this is the starting staff that can lead the Cubs going into the future? What if they are good enough to pitch for a contending team? If that was the case the Cubs would be a whole lot closer to winning than even they thought.
When is a starting rotation described as a good staff and not just one having a good start?
"It takes time," Samardzija said before the Cubs left town for their weekend series in Washington. "It takes months and a lot of games. You do have to have the start to make it a whole thing and we've done that. It's not a fluke but now we have to keep proving that."
Fair enough. But let's say they do keep on proving it -- though that's a big assumption. With no starter older than 30, why can't Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood, Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva be part of the rotation for the next few years? Add Matt Garza to the mix plus the No.2 pick in this year's draft, and the Cubs could have enough to win with. In fact, more than enough.
"Everyone loves Garza here," Samardzija said. "Everyone knows he's a key to this rotation. When he's healthy then I really think you'll start to see the wheels turn. Garza is a seven inning guy every time out."
So let's go through the names.
Jackson is signed for three more years and can't pitch much worse than he has. The Cubs will have to hope he turns it around if not this year then next when they should be closer to contending. Even if he's lost it completely they might have enough to overcome, if the rest of the group is healthy. Samardzija and Wood aren't free agents until 2016 and 2017 so plenty of time to see if they can pitch for a contender before having to commit long-term if the Cubs prefer. Villanueva is signed for one more year after this one and probably will see the bullpen before it's all said and done. Either way he's already proven his worth, he'll battle every time he takes the mound.
Feldman and Garza can become free agents after this season so they become trickier propositions. There's no rush for Feldman -- if the Cubs don't trade him. He would probably sign a new deal today but they can take their time with him. The biggest question is with Garza. This could be his last chance at a big, long term contract if he can prove himself. Time will tell if Garza is still a top of the rotation pitcher and the Cubs should tread carefully before either trading him or signing him to a multi-year deal.
Now add college studs Mark Appel or Jonathan Gray and the Cubs should have plenty of competition heading into 2014 and beyond.
When he signed Jackson over the winter Theo Epstein said it was a pre-emptive move considering the pitching market moving forward was thin. With a staff pitching the way it is the Cubs should closely monitor what they have in their own backyard and react accordingly. Not necessarily today but this year. Fast forward three months, if the staff is pitching as well as it is now, lock some guys up. This would probably be a change in recent philosophy of flipping guys for prospects but when it comes to starters, if you trade one you just have to replace one. Maybe the Cubs can just stand pat in that area.
Then they can concentrate on the bullpen this offseason which can be easier to fix than you might think and, yes, they'll have work to do with position players as well but just think if this part of the equation was surprisingly taken care of in the near future. The Cubs' turnaround could be much quicker if offseason time and resources could be used elsewhere. The formula for winning goes through the starting staff. The Cubs might have one.
"The longer you keep a staff together, you see it carry over from starter to starter, day to day," Samardzija said. "And that's what you want. A close knit of five guys or more that have each other's back."