Cubs need a boost from Cashner next year

MILWAUKEE -- When the Chicago Cubs look across to the opposing team’s dugout this weekend, they’ll see a prime example of how important pitching is when trying to make the playoffs.

The Milwaukee Brewers added two top-of-the-line starting pitchers this offseason in Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke. That duo joining Yovanni Gallardo and Randy Wolf, along with the midseason acquisition of Francisco Rodriguez to set-up breakout closer John Axford, has made the Brewers a trendy pick to represent the National League in the World Series.

The Brewers have won 24 of their last 30 games and are running away with the division, having extended their lead to 9.5 games over the second-place St. Louis Cardinals.

“I didn’t want to see them, but the (Brewers’) numbers over the last month are really good,” Cubs manager Mike Quade said. “Not only have they fortified their bullpen, but they’re getting good starting pitching.”

The Brewers finished last season at 77-85, only two games better than the Cubs. So when discussing the Brewers turnaround, one has to wonder, with some key additions this offseason, could the Cubs contend for a playoff spot in 2012?

“I’ve said it from day one, it’s not rocket science and it’s not something that’s profound,” Quade said. “Everybody that’s in this game knows how important (it is to have) pitching.”

The Cubs will have Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster to lead their rotation next season, but after that, a bunch of question marks remain. Randy Wells has looked better of late (18.2 IP, 3.38 ERA in this last three starts) but the velocity on his fastball is still down (averaged 89.6 the past two season, at 87.8 in 2011 according to FanGraphs) and he’s giving up way too many home runs (1.78 HR/9).

Another rotation spot could be filled by Casey Coleman, or perhaps reliever Jeff Samardzija will get another shot at starting if he’s re-signed. However, Quade says the key to the rotation may lie in the arm of Andrew Cashner.

Cashner made one start this season, giving up only one run in 5 1/3 innings before leaving with a shoulder injury. He’s been on the disabled list since that time and recently resumed pitching with Double-A Tennessee. Cashner made his second rehab appearance Friday night, retiring all three batters he faced, with one strikeout in his lone inning of work.

“If he comes out of this thing healthy and then can build on the development we saw… It was a short window, but it was pretty darn good,” Quade said. “You know he’s going to work to do it and if he’s healthy, he’s got the arm to do it. There’s no reason at all not to be optimistic that he comes back as an important part of this.”

For the Cubs pitching staff to make a turnaround next season without any major changes, obviously a lot of things will have to go right. Garza (3.68 ERA, 157 K, 53 BB) and Dempster (3.41, 126 K, 43 BB since an awful April) look like they can be counted on, but who knows what else the Cubs will get.

The only free-agent starter that looks like an impact pitcher is the Rangers' C.J. Wilson (3.08, 163 K, 61 BB) and he expects to command a hefty price tag. Sure the Cubs could add Wilson and possibly trade for another pitcher; maybe they could go back to Tampa and ask the Rays what it would take to get James Shields. But that isn’t likely with owner Tom Ricketts insistent on building a strong farm system, as a major trade would require the Cubs to move multiple prospects. Furthermore, adding a couple front-line starting pitchers wouldn’t address the Cubs other major issue, their defense (they lead the majors with 108 errors).

The smartest move for the Cubs may be to stay away from the prime free agents this offseason and try to address their defensive deficiencies at a lower cost. With a strong group of elite pitchers expected to be free agents after the 2012 season, a list that includes Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, and Greinke, the Cubs would be wise to save their money and try to jump back in the race by 2013.