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Jon Lester's availability will set course for Cubs' rotation

CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon won’t announce his starting rotation for the beginning of the season until after ace Jon Lester pitches in a minor league game on Tuesday.

Lester missed a start earlier this month with a fatigued arm, throwing off his preparation for the regular season. The Cubs open next Sunday night against the St. Louis Cardinals. The team has been cautious with Lester since he returned to the mound, limiting him to a “controlled” minor league game where they can dictate how long each inning lasts. Tuesday will be the same.

Maddon said he wants Lester to go through the prerequisite “ups and downs” of beginning and ending innings, hence the minor league contest. But he wants to make sure Lester gets his work in without having any one inning last too long.

So is there concern with Lester?

First off, there is always going to be concern when a pitcher’s routine is thrown off, especially due to an arm issue. A dead arm is common, and Lester has had one before but even he was surprised by the timing as it’s never happened to him at this point in the season.

In any case, it will limit him in terms of how long he’ll pitch if he does make his Opening Day start, which more than likely he will. Teammate David Ross rightly has noted that less than 100 percent of Lester is probably better than 100 percent of most. But the Cubs won’t confirm Lester is pitching Sunday and line up the rest of the rotation until after he throws on Tuesday. So that alone makes it a little noteworthy.

“If Jon is ‘yes, I’m good,’” then we can fill in the blanks quickly,” Maddon said Sunday before the Cubs played the Kansas City Royals.

More than likely the rotation will play out as you would think. After Lester makes his debut next Sunday night at Wrigley Field, Jake Arrieta figures to pitch in Tuesday’s matchup with the Cardinals, followed by Jason Hammel on Wednesday. That would leave Kyle Hendricks to throw in Colorado for the Rockies’ home opener on April 10. That could be the most difficult first assignment of them all, but Hendricks tamed the Rockies in Denver last August with a beautiful eight-inning, one-run performance.

Maddon also revealed Sunday that whatever outside-the-box thoughts the team has about using Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood as tandem fifth starters aren’t going to materialize.

“More likely someone wins it outright,” Maddon said.

If that someone isn’t Wood, it would be a big surprise. Jackson threw 4 2/3 scoreless innings Sunday against the Royals, but his fate in the rotation may have been sealed five days earlier when he initially went to the wrong stadium, then gave up eight runs in 1 2/3 innings.

Actually, his fate probably was sealed last year as his ERA continued to balloon before he was finally sent to the bullpen. Maddon also indicated he won’t skip starters even though the team has three off days in the first 10 days of the season.

“I’m a big believer in letting them go (pitch),” Maddon said.

The manager noted that even though his top pitchers would stay in turn if they pitched every five days, he thinks the extra rest will come in handy later in the season. It means Lester would have six days off between his first and second starts.

Where does that leave Jackson? There’s one spot left in the bullpen with Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Jason Motte and lefty Phil Coke all making the team. So Jackson might fit in a long relief role much like Carlos Villanueva did for the Cubs the last two seasons.

That could allow him some extended innings in games where scouts of potential trade partners could get a good look. If the Cubs wanted to eat his entire salary and send him packing to another team, they probably could have done that by now. Jackson needs to show the baseball world he has something left before the Cubs can get any value in return. An injury or two to another team’s starting staff is likely to open up the trade market.

With the demotion of Eric Jokisch and the release of Felix Doubront over the weekend, the Cubs pitching staff is starting to take shape but nothing will be locked in until Lester pitches on Tuesday. In more ways than one, everything hinges on him.