The Cubs head into this season with their hopes and dreams attached to the arms of young men. Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano are younger than 26, and 28-year-old Matt Clement and 30-year-old Shawn Estes should be entering the prime of their careers.
"All five of us have experience," Wood said. "Prior, you really can't classify him as young. He's young in age, but as far as experience goes, the guy knows how to pitch. Zambrano has had enough time where he has figured out how to pitch. We're all still learning, but we have a very talented pitching staff."
If the experts are correct, the Cubs will sink or swim on the strength of their rotation, which is being touted as one of the most talented the organization ever has put together. But those familiar with Cubs history recognize a story they've heard before, so it may be better to watch and wait than project greatness before its time.
Research by Cubs historian Ed Hartig shows the Cubs have developed several rotations filled with three or four pitchers who were 26 or younger, but none of them was ultimately good enough to lead to a pennant.
In the late 1950s, the Cubs began bringing up young pitchers with much promise, sticking them in the rotation and hoping they would all jell together at the same time. In 1957 it was the heralded "Gold Dust Twins," rookies Dick Drott and Moe Drabowsky, who were supposed to put an end to years of second-division finishes.
At 20, Drott went 15-11 with a 3.58 ERA, setting a club record with 15 strikeouts in a game. Drabowsky, 21, went 13-15 with a 3.53 ERA.
As it turned out, that was as good as it got for the "Gold Dust Twins." The Cubs hit .244 as a team and wound up losing 92 games. Neither Drott, a victim of arm trouble, nor Drabowsky lasted long in the organization, but management stuck with the same game plan, adding 21-year-old Glen Hobbie to the rotation in 1958 and 20-year-old Dick Ellsworth two years later. All four members of the rotation of Ellsworth, Hobbie, Bob Anderson and Don Cardwell were 25 or younger starting the '60 season, when Cardwell threw a no-hitter against St. Louis in his Cubs debut.
"Cardwell, Anderson, Ellsworth and Hobbie, all of them were throwing in the 90s, all them were power pitchers with great stuff," Cubs great Ron Santo recalled. "And that was when there were only eight teams in both leagues. But we didn't do as well as you'd think we'd do. We had a lot of injuries."
The Cubs lost 94 games in '60, which led to the College of Coaches experiment of rotating managers, a plan that lasted nearly five seasons before owner P.K. Wrigley realized it wasn't working. Jack Curtis, 24, and Calvin Koonce, 22, were rotation starters in those lean days. It wasn't until Ken Holtzman's arrival at the age of 20 in 1966 and the trade for 23-year-old Ferguson Jenkins that same year that the rotation began to find its way again.
They were the two mainstays of the pitching staff during the late 1960s and early '70s, joined for part of that time by 22-year-old Rich Nye and 23-year-old Joe Niekro and surrounded by a strong lineup that included Santo, Hall of Famers Billy Williams and Ernie Banks and other productive stars such as Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Jim Hickman and Randy Hundley.
But several near-misses, including the collapse of '69, led to the breakup of the team and yet another youth movement. The big pitching phenom of the '70s was supposed to be Burt Hooton, a college star at Texas who came up at the end of the '71 season and held hitters to a .111 average in his first three starts, striking out 15 in one game.
As a 22-year-old rookie with little minor-league experience, Hooton was the Mark Prior of his time, throwing a no-hitter in his fourth major-league start on April 16, 1972. He went 11-14 with a 2.80 ERA that year and anchored a young rotation in '73 that included 24-year-old Bill Bonham and 23-year-olds Rick Reuschel and Ray Burris.
Though Hooton went on to win 151 games, most of his success came later with the Dodgers. Reuschel was a workhorse in the Cubs' rotation for years, leading the team in innings pitched from 1976-80. He was perhaps the quintessential Cub and was distraught in '81 after learning he had been traded to the first-place Yankees.
The Cubs put together some other young rotations in the '80s, including one in 1988 led by Greg Maddux, 21, and Jamie Moyer, 25. Maddux and Moyer went on to have long and successful careers, also enjoying most of their winning seasons with other teams. The Cubs gave up on Moyer and lost Maddux as a free agent, but both still are going strong with the Mariners and Braves, respectively.
The Cubs had a difficult time developing pitchers in the early years of Tribune Co. ownership, with Mike Harkey, Shawn Boskie, Frank Castillo and Jeremi Gonzalez failing to stay healthy or show much improvement. But now, with Wood, Prior, Zambrano and Clement as the core of a new generation of Cubs pitchers and with budding star Angel Guzman on the horizon, the future looks bright.
"In my opinion," Santo said, "this rotation is as good as it gets."