Forget Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder. The bigger litmus test will be Matt Garza. That could reveal what Theo Epstein really thinks about this team.

The tricky question of when the Cubs will truly be able to compete could be answered by what Epstein does with Garza. There wont be an easy answer. Even the new president of baseball operations seems conflicted.

Epstein watched Garza eliminate the Boston Red Sox in 2008 and win the ALCS MVP award. Garza wasnt afraid of pitching in a brutal division and loved Fenway Parks big stage.

Thats why, when pressed, Epstein will say: Hes exactly the type of guy that wed like to build around.

But its more complicated than that. Garza, who made close to 6 million last season, remains arbitration-eligible for two more years. For a team looking to win now, a 28-year-old, big-game power pitcher might be more attractive than any free agent on the market.

The Cubs will have to at least wonder what they could get for that, maybe multiple pieces that will help accelerate this rebuilding process.

Thats one of the greatest challenges of the job, Epstein said Thursday, balancing short-term interests with long-term interests and making sure they align, being honest about where you are as an organization and when your opportunity to really win comes.

Jim Hendry never felt like he was mortgaging the future when he sent five players to the Tampa Bay Rays almost 11 months ago. The ex-general manager had studied future free-agent classes and knew it was a rare opportunity to get a frontline starter under club control through 2013.

 

When the industry gathers for the winter meetings next week in Dallas, Garzas name will be linked to trade rumors all over again. But that doesnt automatically mean hes going somewhere else.

There are ways to turn quote-unquote short-term assets into longer-term assets, Epstein said. Its not just through trade. You can also do it through contract extensions. There are a lot of different ways to build a foundation.

Well be open-minded about that with all of our players and see which way things go.

Epstein isnt emotionally attached to these players the way Hendry once was, though he is locked into the idea of getting more pitching. Look for more value signings, like the reasonable two-year, 10 million commitment (plus an option) just given to outfielder David DeJesus.

We need starting pitching, Epstein said. You cant take your chances very seriously as a club if you go into the season without not just five guys you can point to but six, seven, eight guys. You better know who your ninth starters going to be because (the) numbers show youre going to need (him) at some point during the course of the year.

Which seems to suggest it wouldnt make sense to unload your best starter. Epstein had good things to say about Jeff Samardzija and Andrew Cashner, but wouldnt reveal whether those two young pitchers are ticketed for the bullpen.

Epstein isnt prepared to move Sean Marshall to the rotation: If you have the best left-handed reliever in baseball, its hard to think about taking him out of that role.

Garza went 10-10 with a 3.32 ERA last season, though thats deceptive because he left with the lead seven times without factoring into the decision. He has the ability to make hitters swing and miss (197 strikeouts in 198 innings), which is something this front office values.

Garza did miss a few weeks with a right elbow contusion, but has made at least 30 starts in each of the past four seasons. He definitely has an edge, a few personality quirks, but teammates respected his energy and effort. He answered the questions about how hed handle playing in a big market.

DeJesus has spent his entire major-league career in Kansas City and Oakland, but he seems ready for the bright lights. He recently moved into a home in Wheaton with his wife and 18-month-old son, so hes seen the wall-to-wall Epstein coverage.

The hype thats going around, its a beautiful thing, DeJesus said. To be able to be a part of it (is) such a blessing.

Perhaps the biggest question for the Cubs this winter remains unanswered: Will Garza become part of Epsteins grand plan?