CINCINNATI — What does a quick Cubs turnaround look like?
Good luck seeing it from the depths of the 12-game losing streak these disassembled Cubs are trying to escape with the four guys left from a bad starting rotation.
But that’s exactly where it will start. If it starts at all anytime soon.
“There’s a lot of [possible] similarities,” said Cubs manager David Ross, a first-year Cub the year the team turned a competitive corner a year early from its last roster-teardown-and-rebuild project.
What’s certain is that the next competitive turnaround won’t look anything like Monday night in Cincinnati, where promising rookie left-hander Justin Steele couldn’t escape enough damage to pitch longer than four innings in a Reds rout.
But what if the Cubs use some of their newfound, tank-the-payroll spending flexibility over the winter to invest in a long-term contract with a starting pitcher such as Marcus Stroman, Carlos Rodón or Kevin Gausman?
If recent history tells us anything, it’s that they’re more likely to spend that money on some more real estate investments in Wrigleyville or on ballpark clubs and sports books.
But if chairman Tom Ricketts is serious about giving team president Jed Hoyer a green light, and Hoyer is serious about this not-a-rebuild involving a significant expenditure this winter, then it’s all going to be about the starters.
As in what they decide they have in Steele and fellow rookies Adbert Alzolay and Keegan Thompson. To go with proven championship starter Kyle Hendricks and proven back-end guy Alec Mills.
And whatever they add to what remains standing among that group.
“I think we have to get to the end of this season and see what we have. That’s the key,” Ross said. “But I definitely can speak on what makes a good rotation.
“If you want to be a championship-caliber team you have to have some form of a No. 1,” he said. “Every championship team I’ve been on has had some horses. We’ve got a guy who’s definitely proven [in Hendricks]. Can you add another big-time arm?”
That’s what the Cubs obviously did after their last-place 2014 season, with Jake Arrieta having proven he had frontline stuff following the 2013 trade from Baltimore; they added two-time champ Jon Lester on a six-year, $155 million deal to lead the rotation and lend credibility to the Cubs’ vision with other free agents.
They also had a young All-Star hitting core on the brink of making an impact in 2015.
But the biggest reason the Cubs went to three consecutive National League Championship Series and five postseasons in the last six years was a run-prevention formula that started with starting pitching.
That’s what made Steele’s four innings of pitching into — and mostly out of — jams during an 82-pitch start so important in the scheme of making plans.
That and the fact Alzolay’s balky hamstring doesn’t seem to be serious enough to sideline him much longer than the 10 required days on the injured list.
“The more he can come out here and compete for us, the better,” Ross said. “I hope we see Adbert again [pitching this season].”
And just as important: The planned promotion into the rotation of Thompson, who stretched out to 62 pitches in Sunday’s start with triple-A Iowa — and who should be in the Cubs’ rotation by the middle of next week.
And then a free agent?
“We need to find out what we have here first, and see what’s in the mix,” Ross said.
Steele, who competes with a mid-90s fastball and a slider that comes and goes, might have the most potential to make an impact than any of the three rookies. But that’s a lot of what the rest of this lost season is about — actually what just about all of it’s about.
“I need to work on my command and eliminate the big pitchers where I get hurt,” said Steele, who pitched out of jams in the first three innings before centering a fastball in the fourth that Jonathan India hit into the upper deck in left for a three-run homer.
“Maybe try a different pitch there,” Steele said. “Other than that pitch, I was happy with how I did.”
This is what a rebuild looks like. Any Cubs fan old enough to drive has seen enough North Side baseball to know that.
How fast it can turn around is the only thing that matters now to fans of all ages asked to pay top dollar for bottom-feeder baseball.
How fast might have as much to do with spending will — and credibility — as anything.
You don’t have to go too far back in history before Lester’s signing in December 2014 to find a lesser pitcher, Anibal Sanchez, who rejected the Cubs to re-sign with the Tigers instead after the Cubs’ 100-loss 2012 season. They went to Plan B and signed Edwin Jackson instead to help bridge to better times.
(Insert lazy punchline here.)
How do you make this look more like the Lester offseason than the Jackson one?
“You get real arms,” Ross said of that 2014-15 winter. “You’ve got a No. 1 in Jake and then you go out and get a Jon Lester, and then you’ve got a [Jason] Hammel, a Hendricks, who was still coming and proving himself.”
Hammel was a back-end rotation veteran. Hendricks was in his first full season in the majors in 2015.
Are either of them in this group of young pitchers?
That could be the difference.
“Depth is important and having pieces like [those],” Ross said. “We’ve seen how important depth is this year especially. I think we have a semblance of that.”
Maybe if at least one of the rookies proves that over these next seven weeks.
“And you’ve got to obviously add to it, but I definitely don’t think that’s far away,” Ross said. “I think our staff looks pretty good if you go out and add some talent.”