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Phil Rogers

To compete, Cubs know they need pitching

Hoyer, Epstein to spend next '18-24 months' trying to beef up rotation

To compete, Cubs know they need pitching

For the fifth year in a row, the last three overseen by the Theo Epstein regime, the Cubs were among the sellers in July. No surprise there, given the team's .421 winning percentage since the start of the 2010 season.

This marks the worst period for the franchise in more than 60 years, standing alongside the horrific run that followed the 1945 World Series -- the one that really started the downward trend that the likes of Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Leo Durocher, Greg Maddux, Don Zimmer, Dusty Baker, Lou Piniella, Sammy Sosa and Mark Prior were unable to shake.

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The question then is this: When is it going to end? When will the Cubs compete again?

Jed Hoyer, the general manager who serves alongside Epstein, may have let an internal timetable slip on Thursday. In announcing a trade that would make sense only to the modern Cubs fan -- one that sent two proven players and cash to the Braves for a 20-year-old catcher who hasn't played above Class A ball -- Hoyer referenced how the front office planned to spend "our next 18-24 months'' rounding up pitching to go with its impressive collection of young hitters.

That tells me that the plan is to improve significantly next year -- no more top-five picks in the Draft -- and point the organization's resources at reaching the playoffs in 2016.

All major moves by the organization in the upcoming offseason and during 2015 will be directed at acquiring the best pitchers possible with controllable contracts and shelf life in their arms. When the Cubs head into July 2016, they hope to be exploring trades like the ones that the A's and Tigers made Thursday, acquiring pitchers who can deliver an immediate return.

Until prospects like Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler are rat-a-tatting big league pitchers, all of this is educated guesswork. But here's how the Cubs' unprecedented rebuild looks at this point, 33 months since Epstein's hiring, with Hoyer providing some insight from management's perspective:

1. This is going to be an above-average group of hitters, perhaps the best in the National League within two or three years.

Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, who are 24, should be joined by midseason, 2015, by Arismendy Alcantara (the first anticipated kid to arrive, he's got a .764 OPS and four stolen bases in his first 18 games), Soler, Bryant and Baez by the middle of next season. Like Rizzo and Castro, Bryant and Baez (at second base) should provide above-average production at their positions, with the possibility that they'll quickly develop into elite players.

Others are coming behind them, including Russell (a shortstop with a complete game) and outfielders Albert Almora, Billy McKinney and Kyle Schwarber (who could provide a left-handed complement to Welington Castillo at catcher.

Hoyer calls pitching "a huge priority'' going forward but believes the abundance of hitters will be the foundation of future success.

"We know [we need pitching],'' he said. "That said, look around baseball right now, what bats changed hands? Nobody is trading bats right now. If you need a bat in a pennant race you were probably out of luck at this Deadline. I like the fact that we have a lot of volume of something that people don't necessarily have right now.''

2. Even in this era of offensive drought, the teams that go to the playoffs are more often the ones that do the best job of pitching and defense, not scoring runs. In the two years that Major League Baseball has used a 10-team postseason format, nine of the 10 NL playoff teams ranked in the top five in the league in run prevention, with only the 2012 Giants, who were sixth, slipping through.

This is a tiny sample, not a small one. So I asked Hoyer if in this landscape a team could win by scoring an above-average number of runs behind an average pitching staff. He thinks it's possible.

"That's a really good question,'' Hoyer said. "It's something we're talked about. I think you can but the challenge is that an average pitching staff can become below average in a hurry. I think a below-average pitching staff and an above-average offense isn't going to work. But I do think a team that is probably average in run prevention and really hits the ball, in this day and age, it probably does work. But it's a hard needle to thread. If you go for average and you end up on the wrong side of that, it's not a lot of fun to watch.''

3. With Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in Oakland, it's possible that Jake Arrieta is the only member of the current rotation who will be a top-four starter in the Cubs' next contending rotation. The Cubs would love for right-handers C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson to step up and fill needs but there are no guarantees.

That's certainly true with the other arms who will get good opportunities in the next year: Kyle Hendricks, Tsuyoshi Wada, Dan Straily and Felix Doubront. Maybe also Corey Black or Dallas Beeler. So, by my count, that's at least two and maybe three impact arms to be added through trades or free-agent signings -- including those on the international market -- in the next 24 months.

4. Signing Edwin Jackson after the Tigers dug deep to keep Anibal Sanchez was a bad idea. But otherwise the Cubs have done a great job identifying available pitchers who were undervalued. They got significant contributions from Travis Wood, Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman, Arrieta and Hammel while also building a power bullpen through trades and the Rule 5 Draft.

"We have had success with that,'' Hoyer said about getting results from acquired starters. "I think you'd be pretty cocky to think you can do it over and over. It has worked for us, it does give us some comfort. We really do believe in our pitching infrastructure, as we've talked about, but we don't feel like every year we can go get a guy like this for 6 or 7 million bucks and we can plug him into the rotation. I don't think that's something we can take for granted. We've been successful with it so far but we need young pitching, we need veteran pitching, we need volume of pitching. We can't think we can go out every year and sign a guy to a one-year deal and he's going to be successful.''

5. The Cubs do have some good arms in the pipeline, including Jen-Ho Tseng, Paul Blackburn, Duane Underwood, Dillon Maple and four acquired in the most recent Draft -- University of Maryland right-hander Jake Stinnett and high-school arms Carson Sands, Dylan Cease and Justin Steele. But it will be a pleasant surprise if any of these guys come quickly.

However, they also have a deep wave of position-player talent behind Rizzo, Castro and the headline prospects. They're very much on the lookout for teams that are deep in pitching but need hitting, like the Mets, Rays and Mariners. To compete for a division title in 2016, they'll almost certainly have to add a high-profile free agent or two or make good trades.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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