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Cubs trying to add pitching to solid base

Top-line starter, innings-eater top offseason shopping list
MLB.com @philgrogers

PHOENIX -- Who doesn't like fun with math? Here's some that should be especially appealing to Cubs fans.

Take the 2014 performances of Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Tsuyoshi Wada, then add in those of free-agent targets Jon Lester and Jason Hammel. Here's what you get: a 47-33 record and 2.81 ERA over 702 1/3 innings. The secondary numbers include a 1.09 WHIP and 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings.

PHOENIX -- Who doesn't like fun with math? Here's some that should be especially appealing to Cubs fans.

Take the 2014 performances of Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Tsuyoshi Wada, then add in those of free-agent targets Jon Lester and Jason Hammel. Here's what you get: a 47-33 record and 2.81 ERA over 702 1/3 innings. The secondary numbers include a 1.09 WHIP and 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings.

What a combination.

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Had any National League team had a starting rotation that put up those totals last season, it would have ranked first in ERA, first in WHIP and second in strikeouts per nine innings.

Lester and Hammel were used because they represent the combination of starters that president, baseball operations Theo Epstein and executive vice president, general manager Jed Hoyer are looking to add this offseason -- a big-ticket, front-end guy and a worker bee. Instead of Hammel, the Cubs could wind up with someone like Jake Peavy or Justin Masterson. If they did, the numbers would be a little less impressive.

With Peavy, the projected rotation would be coming off a season in which its five pieces went 44-35 with a 2.90 ERA, 728 2/3 innings, 1.14 WHIP and 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings. With Masterson, the numbers are 44-31, 3.23, 654 2/3 innings, 1.19 WHIP and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings.

However you slice it, if the Cubs add Lester in the spot occupied by Edwin Jackson -- who is signed for two more years but no longer guaranteed starts -- they would have a starting rotation that is capable of chasing a Wild Card, if not overtaking the Cardinals and Pirates to win the NL Central.

"There's a lot of work to be done," Epstein said. "It's easy to talk about wanting to bring in two guys you like but a lot harder to do it. I don't want to get ahead of ourselves, but [the opportunity we have is] a credit to our pitching infrastructure: [coaches] Chris Bosio, Lester Strode and Mike Borzello, our catching, our advance scouting and our defense. We've actually had some pretty good staffs the last couple of years without household names."

While the Cubs won only 73 games in 2014, they finished with a 15.7 WAR on the pitching side. That was a distant second to Washington (26.2) in the NL, surprisingly ahead of teams like the Dodgers (14.2) and Cardinals (13.5).

"That would probably surprise most people," Epstein said. "Without the big names, we've found ways to get things done with execution, good scouting, good advance scouting and pitchers taking a big step forward, guys who were bought low -- like Arrieta -- in trades or on the free-agent market. We have to maintain that."

The next moves are crucial for Epstein and Hoyer. As Epstein has been saying, this is a volatile market in which many teams are trying to make the same kinds of upgrades as the Cubs.

The Red Sox, for instance, are looking for almost exactly the same combination of starters -- one stud, one worker bee to line up alongside Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly and a fifth starter from a pack of unproven candidates.

It's probably unrealistic to expect the Cubs to cut their rotation ERA by a full run from the 4.19 figure that starters have posted in 2012-14, the three seasons of the Epstein-Hoyer-Jason McLeod rebuild, but there is a significant base of talent already in place.

Arrieta and Hendricks, acquired in trades from the Orioles and Rangers, look like long-term pieces. Holdovers Travis Wood (arbitration-eligible after a down year in 2014) and Jackson are on tenuous footing with Jacob Turner, Felix Doubront and Dan Straily on the roster, and prospects C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson and Eric Jokisch also expected to work in big league camp this spring.

It was the depth of pitching options that allowed the Cubs to trade Jeff Samardzija and Hammel last July, and a successful offseason would underscore the wisdom of the trade that brought shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney from Oakland.

As focused as the Cubs are on adding pieces, Epstein points to the continued development of Arrieta and Hendricks, as well as the power arms in the young bullpen, as vital in the effort to give Joe Maddon a winning roster.

"If we bring in a couple pitchers we believe in but the other guys regress, we're not going to get where we want to go," Epstein said. "We need to maintain the culture we have around the pitching staff, where guys see improvement, we get the most out of the pitchers -- or most of our pitchers, anyway -- and hopefully add a couple of pitchers to the group who have the talent and the character to take it to the next level."

Like Epstein said, it will be easier said than done to add the right pieces. But the result could be well worth the risks required.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

 

Chicago Cubs, Jake Arrieta, Felix Doubront, Kyle Hendricks, Edwin Jackson, Eric Jokisch, Justin Masterson, Jake Peavy, Dan Straily, Jacob Turner, Tsuyoshi Wada, Travis Wood