MESA, Ariz. — Opening Day is still more than three weeks off, but the Cubs are already preparing for doomsday scenarios with the pitching staff.
Of course, that's not really a change of pace from years past. The old adage — "you can never have too much pitching" — rings true for just about every organization each season.
Even after winning the World Series last year and tallying 200 victories across the past two regular seasons, the Cubs knew they needed to add pitching depth this winter.
The starting rotation has stayed remarkably healthy the last two years: In 2015, the top four guys all made at least 31 starts while last year, the top five guys accounted for 152 starts in the 162-game regular season.
The Cubs can't count on that kind of durability each season.
Jason Hammel was the only starting pitcher to depart from 2016 while Theo Epstein's front office took low-risk/high-reward gambles on injury-prone Brett Anderson, former top prospect Eddie Butler and unproven Alec Mills. Plus there's swingman Mike Montgomery, whom the Cubs acquired from the Seattle Mariners before last summer's trade deadline. Casey Kelly — a former first-round pick by Epstein's front office in Boston in 2008 — started a "B" game for the Cubs Thursday against the Los Angeles Angels.
Ahead of Thursday's Cactus League game against the Mariners, Joe Maddon confirmed he's still looking at Montgomery and Anderson as a hybrid role to fill the fifth starter spot.
The two southpaws pitched the first four innings of the Cubs' 8-6 loss to the Mariners, allowing three runs on eight hits.
The plan is for Butler and Mills — the two guys the Cubs acquired in the weeks before pitchers and catchers reported to Arizona — to head to Triple-A Iowa, where they'll represent insurance options should the big-league rotation get hammered with injuries.
"When you leave camp and you have no starting backup that you dig in Triple-A, that's a bad feeling, man," Maddon said. "So when you can line them up on the tarmac in Triple-A that way, it really makes a huge difference.
"Fortunately, we've been relatively healthy the last couple years and we're looking forward to the same kind of health this year. However, stuff happens. And to have that same kind of quality in the background is comforting because you need that.
"Anytime you can line up 6-7-8, even 9, in Triple-A, that's kinda neat."
Mills - acquired from the Kansas City Royals in a trade when he was designated for assignment to make room on the roster for Hammel — said he wasn't expecting to be traded the week before pitchers and catchers reported.
"The Royals DFA'd me and I got traded within three, four hours. So it was kinda whirlwind," said Mills, who had to switch gears in a hurry and figure out place to live with a new team just a few days before his 2017 season started.
Mills, 25, has a 3.03 career ERA in 94 minor-league games (67 starts), but only 58 innings at the big-league level. He's enjoying camp in the laid back, loose atmosphere the Cubs have built.
He knows it's a longshot for him to break camp with the 25-man roster, but the Cubs told him to be ready for anything and that's what he plans on doing.
Butler, meanwhile, has significantly more experience in the majors, starting 28 games for the Colorado Rockies over the last three seasons and tossing 159.1 innings.
The former Top 25 prospect understands he's in a dogfight for a spot on the big-league roster and isn't willing to resign to a role of Triple-A depth just yet.
However, Butler — who won three straight state championships in high school — is thrilled to get a chance to pitch for a winning club and like any pitcher, is glad his home ballpark resides at sea level instead of Coors Field, a hitter's paradise.
"I'm very happy about the opportunities that I have ahead of me here, working with [Cubs pitching coach Chris] Bosio and winning — coming out here and trying to repeat what happened last year," Butler said. "The start of a dynasty."
Montgomery would prefer to be a starter than in the bullpen — a common sentiment among most pitchers — but a little over a year ago, he thought he may have to go to Japan to continue his playing career.
Now the 27-year-old has a save from Game 7 of the World Series on his resume and has a chance to be a big part of the Cubs pitching staff for the next few years.
Thursday, Montgomery faced off against his former team and admitted he had plenty of adrenaline going even though it was only a spring training game.
"It's been a wild ride, but I think it just comes down to me believing in what I do as a pitcher. I always have," Montgomery said. "Knowing that it takes time to develop and to learn how to pitch and learn how to get hitters out with your stuff.
"I feel good with it now. I'm excited moving forward. I know last year at this time, I was in a lot different spot. ... To see where I was last year to now, it's a big jump.
"You always gotta work hard, because you never know what can happen in this game. So just take that mindset and go forward with it."