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Pitching help a long way off for Cubs

Rizzo, Castro good building blocks, but strong arms will be needed down the road

Phil Rogers

On Baseball

12:53 AM EDT, June 28, 2012

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So much for Anthony Rizzo's victory lap.

On the day after Rizzo's critically acclaimed Chicago debut, the Cubs demonstrated nicely what exactly he has gotten himself into.

The 17-1 loss to the Mets wasn't quite like that horrific, fireball-generating crash when Juan Pablo Montoya's car struck the kerosene-powered dryer truck at the Daytona 500, but it was closer than anything Theo Epstein had in mind.

You can't blame Rizzo, whose biggest crime was failing to get a runner home from third with no outs. He banged a double off the wall in right-center, barely missing his first homer, and like Starlin Castro and Alfonso Soriano, was given time off for good behavior late in the game.

Given how badly the Cubs have struggled against left-handed pitchers, it was a good sign that Rizzo's Day 2 highlight came against lefty Jonathon Niese. He put an easy swing on a 1-2 fastball, earning praise from manager Dale Sveum.

"He had some good swings today, really," Sveum said. "The one at-bat he shortened up and hit a double off the wall. He's done fine. He hasn't done anything we didn't expect so far."

Padres general manager Josh Byrnes said in spring training that Rizzo became frustrated when his power didn't translate into home runs at spacious Petco Park. He killed a pitch from Livan Hernandez in his big-league debut, but the ball caromed off the wall in deep left-center for a triple, and had several other near misses while hitting only one home run in 128 at-bats.

The liner off Niese was a near miss but hardly the kind of event that contributed to his downfall in 2011 — a development that led to his trade from the Padres last winter.

"There's a big difference,'' Rizzo said. "A couple balls last year hit the wall that were crushed. (Today) I was just trying to put a good swing on the ball.''

Assuming Rizzo isn't fool's gold, Epstein can feel good about four and a half positions — yes, four and a half — as he tries to build a contender out of the team that is on track to go 56-106.

Castro should be a perennial All-Star at shortstop. Second baseman Darwin Barney is solid in the same sense that Glenn Beckert was a compliment to Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo. Catchers Steve Clevenger and Welington Castillo look like a serviceable platoon that could provide the consistency Geovany Soto has not. And Bryan LaHair could be a productive platoon guy in one of the outfield corners.

Brett Jackson, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Albert Almora are definite maybes too. But the pitching?

Oh, boy, do Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod and all the Jim Hendry holdover guys have their work cut out there.

With Jeff Samardzija getting batted around for nine runs in 41/3 innings, the Cubs' starting rotation has a 4.49 ERA, the second worst in the National League. The guy who had been a revelation in April and May is wilting at the start of the summer, and Epstein and Hoyer appear more likely to trade veterans Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster than test their shelf life.

Hoyer has said it's essential that the pitchers the Cubs add be "strike-throwers,'' with days like Wednesday in mind. While the wind was listed at only 7 mph at game time, it was blowing straight out, and the Mets hit four homers — two each off Samardzija and Casey Coleman.

The Cubs' pitchers walked seven, compared with only one walk from Niese and Ramon Ramirez.

"The walks aren't acceptable, especially with the conditions we had today,'' said Samardzija, who had four. "If you're going to give up home runs, they have to be solo home runs. You can't give up runs for free.''

With Castro, Rizzo and other young position players to build around, the Cubs should be able to invest heavily in free-agent pitching in future seasons, with the heavy spending likely to start after 2013. In the meantime Epstein and Hoyer are trying to accumulate as much talent as possible, no matter the shape or size.

Yasiel Puig, a 21-year-old Cuban outfielder like the still-in-administrative-limbo Jorge Soler, is trying to get a deal somewhere before Monday, when international signing limits are implemented. He's beeping brightly on Epstein's radar. The Cubs also know they have only a little more than two weeks left to sign Almora, the high school hitting machine who was the sixth overall pick in the draft.

Down the road, these guys can be huge keys, if only because it's more pieces to trade for pitching. The Rizzo-for-Andrew Cashner trade must seem like child's play when Epstein contemplates the work ahead.

The Rizzo-for-Andrew Cashner trade must seem like child's play when he contemplates the work ahead.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ ChiTribRogers