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Rotation deep despite the lack of a true ace

MESA, Ariz. – Jeff Samardzija led the Cubs in innings pitched his first year as a starter. Matt Garza has been solid when healthy. Edwin Jackson pitched for eight other teams the last 10 seasons.

While none of those top three pitchers in the Cubs rotation can yet be considered an ace, the Cubs should be able to make up for the lack of a true No. 1 with their potential depth.

“One way or another, we’re going to have five pretty good starters to start the season,” manager Dale Sveum said. “You have three guys that can go out there with no-hitter type stuff.”

There are several options to fill in the gaps after that, including three more newcomers like Jackson.

Scott Feldman won 17 games for Texas four years ago, Carlos Villanueva has been a starter and reliever, and Scott Baker has a 63-48 career record, though he will miss the start of the season after elbow surgery that forced him to miss all of 2012 for Minnesota.

“I’m excited to watch those guys throw,” Samardzija said. “I think we’ve got pretty good chemistry here. We’re all going to help each out, really bringing them into the mix with us. But if we can stay together as a group, all five, then it’s going to work better for everybody.”

And don’t forget 26-year-old left-hander Travis Wood, who joined the rotation last May and stayed there the rest of the season – though he’s got to win a spot this spring. Wood’s 156 innings and 26 starts were surpassed only by Samardzija for the Cubs.

“All great pitchers, and whenever we do get our final five, I think it’s going to be a tough rotation,” Wood said. “I think the potential is as high as it can be.”

Garza (15-17, 3.52 ERA in 49 starts for the Cubs the past two years) missed the final two months last season because of a stress reaction in his right elbow. He then sustained a pulled muscle in his left side only a few days into spring training.

While Garza was set Thursday to resume a throwing program, he indicated that he would proceed cautiously. He’s not planning to rush things this spring, hoping that will help prevent any more issues into the season.

“If I try to rush and be ready April 1, I might be re-injured in June, and be out,” he said. “If I take my time, maybe I’m pitching April 15 through October, maybe November.”

After Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm were traded in late July, Samardzija became the workhorse starter in a rotation suddenly filled mostly with Triple-A hurlers.

The former Notre Dame receiver’s season was ended after 1742/3 innings following his Sept. 8 start. That was five more innings than Samardzija pitched combined the previous four seasons as a reliever.

“It’s tough to be a competitor and sit and watch,” Samardzija said. “It’s tough but you understand for the big picture and why they’re doing it and the reasons they’re doing it. ... It made sense on why they were doing it, and it’s paying off now, the way I feel this year and the way I’m going to feel throughout the season.”

Samardzija might even get a chance to start the opener for the Cubs. But he hopes Sveum is able to pick the first starter based on what happens on the field rather than in the training room.

After playing with different teams each of the past six seasons, and starting at least 31 games each year, Jackson signed a $52 million, four-year deal with the Cubs.

“I think the moves that were made this offseason just show that the team is trying to win, that the organization is trying to turn around. It’s a little bit more than just the rebuilding stage,’ Jackson said. “It’s a young group of guys, and all it takes is just for everyone to get on the same cylinders at the same time, and start clicking together and special things can happen.”

Feldman got a three-year deal from Texas after his 17-win season, but needed microfracture surgery on his right knee in 2010 and was hampered through the next year recovering. During an inconsistent 2012, he lost six decisions in a row, then won six before losing another five – all in an 18-game stretch.

“I couldn’t be happier to come here and get a fresh start,” Feldman said. “I’m still only 30, hopefully my better years are still ahead of me. I’m healthy and I’m feeling confident that I can get back to that form.”

Villanueva appeared in 61 games the last two seasons for Toronto, 29 of those starts.

The 29-year-old right-hander has been told to prepare as a starter, but said it’s no big deal to him whether he ends up in the rotation or the bullpen. As long as the Cubs are winning.

“I didn’t come here to lose, I came here because I think what we have here is something special, can turn into something special,” Villanueva said. “I’m not here to play for a .500 team, and I’m not here to just pass the time. ... I signed here for the opportunity to win.”

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