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Cubs’ homestand worth a long, hard look

HoustAstros v Chicago Cubs

Houston Astros v Chicago Cubs

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TODAY

PIRATES AT CUBS

The facts: 1:20, Ch. 9, 720-AM.

The starters: James McDonald (12-7, 3.93 ERA) vs. Chris Rusin (0-2, 5.73).

THE REST OF THE SERIES

Saturday: 12:05 p.m., CSN, 720-AM. Wandy Rodriguez (10-13, 3.72) vs. Jason Berken (NL debut).

Sunday: 1:20 p.m., Ch. 9, 720-AM. Jeff Locke (0-1, 4.11) vs. Chris Volstad (3-10, 5.99).

Monday: 7:05 p.m., CSN, 720-AM. Kevin Correia (10-9, 4.29) vs. Travis Wood (6-11, 4.23).

Updated: October 15, 2012 9:59AM



Look around.

Take a good, long 10-day look around Wrigley Field, starting Friday afternoon, and get a load of how far the Cubs are from becoming factors again in the National League Central.

Or how close they could be if they decide to spend some of the money coming off the payroll this fall to fill a couple of sizable starting-pitching holes.

The last long homestand of the season brings MVP candidates (Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Matt Holliday), Cy Young candidates (Johnny Cueto, Aroldis Chapman, Kyle Lohse) and pennant hopefuls (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis) to town to face a Cubs team trying to avoid 100 losses with a rag-tag starting rotation and a roster full of Class AAA kids.

It’s also the last and best shot the Cubs’ field staff and front office have to see what kind of quality is in house before offseason decision time.

The Cubs won’t have their two best pitchers after Jeff Samardzija (innings limit) joined Matt Garza (elbow) on the shutdown list.

But cornerstone first baseman Anthony Rizzo is expected back for Friday’s opener against Pittsburgh after banging his neck and shoulder in that nasty spill Tuesday in Houston.

Outfield prospect Brett Jackson, who hasn’t played since badly bruising his knee on a wall-crashing catch in Pittsburgh a week earlier, also should be back.

Not that winning or losing these series will say much about this Cubs team or next year’s, for that matter.

But at least six — and possibly seven — of next year’s starting eight position players figure to get most of the playing time: Rizzo, second baseman Darwin Barney, shortstop Starlin Castro, left fielder Alfonso Soriano, right fielder David DeJesus, catcher Welington Castillo and the auditioning Jackson.

How those guys compete will matter, along with one or two of the starting pitchers. Lefty Travis Wood, who came over in the Sean Marshall trade and has a 2.43 ERA in his last five starts, will try to prove he belongs.

Whether any of it matters before 2014 is up to team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, who must decide how much they agree with manager Dale Sveum on the difference-making ability at the top of the rotation of Garza, a World Series veteran with a 15-win season and no-hitter, and Samardzija, who could be the Opening Day starter after a stellar second half.

‘‘You’ve got two guys that are on that verge of being those shutdown, No. 1-type guys with the stuff they have,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘When you have two guys that throw 95 miles an hour and have command and have secondary pitches, and the will to do it, and who go out there and want to pitch nine innings, with the work ethic they both have, it’s a pretty nice way to start going into spring training next year.’’

Even if Wood proves he deserves to go to spring training with the No. 5 spot locked up, that still leaves a front office to decide to go after at least two No. 3-quality proven free agents to give the guys in the clubhouse a chance to win next year — or not.

With less than $45 million committed to players under contract for next season, the payroll flexibility should cover any direction the front office wants to take.

You don’t have to go too far in the clubhouse to find the will to make a homestand like this one meaningful for the home team by this time next year.

‘‘You look at any professional sport, and there’s always quick turnarounds, period,’’ Samardzija said after his last start. ‘‘Everybody here has good players, and the talent levels on every team are closer than you think.’’



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