ST. LOUIS — The questions about this rotation start with Jon Lester and won’t end even if the Cubs make a blockbuster trade at the July 31 deadline. That’s just the nature of pitching.
But the arms race will be the No. 1 priority for Theo Epstein’s front office with the Cubs not knowing right now what they’re going to get from their $155 million ace, Kyle Hendricks and Tsuyoshi Wada.
“You always want to make your pitching better,” manager Joe Maddon said Friday at Busch Stadium. “But I have a lot of faith in the guys that are out there, too.
“I’m not worried about Jon Lester at all. Jonny’s going to be fine. That is not my concern.”
With Wada still dealing with a shoulder injury — the Cubs say it’s soreness around the left deltoid muscle and not a more serious structural issue — the next man up becomes Donn Roach.
Roach will face the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday and try to slow down the best team in baseball. The 25-year-old right-hander earned a look by going 7-1 with a 2.29 ERA in 14 starts at Triple-A Iowa.
But the issues run deeper when the Cubs are paying former starters Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson almost $17 million combined to pitch out of the bullpen. Maddon feels Wood is now too valuable as a left-handed reliever, and the Cubs don’t seem to trust Jackson in higher-leverage situations.
A farm system that has produced immediate-impact hitters like Kris Bryant hasn’t kept up on the pitching side, whether it’s injuries, ineffectiveness or simply a matter of how the Cubs have chosen to allocate their resources.
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The Cubs have used 80 draft picks on pitchers since the Epstein administration took over after the 2011 season and don’t have anyone close to becoming a frontline starter (though those are obviously long-term investments that can still pay off big in the future).
Roach made one start and 15 appearances out of the bullpen for the San Diego Padres last year before getting claimed off waivers. Roach grew up in Las Vegas and remembered playing against Bryant in high school. Bryan Harper — Bryce’s older brother — became a groomsman at Roach’s wedding. Roach doesn’t know if this will be one spot start or something more if Wada goes on the disabled list.
The Cubs obviously believe in Lester (4-6, 4.03 ERA) because he has such a long track record and won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox. But you still know Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will be working the phones for the next five weeks.
“They’re always looking,” Maddon said. “Any time you leave spring training, I always thought you needed seven-slash-maybe eight good starters that you can count on.
“That’s what you’re always looking to do, because things happen any year. Any time you can augment your starting pitching, and keeping them stockpiled at Triple-A, that’s just going to make you stronger at the end of the season.”