MESA, Ariz. — Jon Lester for six years and a nine-figure contract? Cole Hamels for nearly $100 million, plus multiple prospects?
For all the questions the Cubs are trying to answer during the next 15 months to arm themselves for a playoff window, one of the most significant factors in how much they’ll need — and how much their rotation will cost — still might be a skinny kid from South Carolina who has seemed to be all but forgotten since last spring.
Right-hander C.J. Edwards, who showed advanced-level work during the just-completed Arizona Fall League, wasn’t even listed among the Cubs’ top-10 prospects in the ranking Baseball Prospectus released this week. That was less than a year after he was rated the Cubs’ top pitching prospect in all three major rankings.
But a strong finish at Class AA Tennessee after a bout with shoulder inflammation, the top performance by a Cubs prospect in the prestigious AFL and a fast-improving changeup might have him on the brink of a big-league debut, if not a prominent place in all the plans to compete the Cubs keep talking about.
‘‘I still have to get there,’’ said Edwards, 23, who dismissed the shoulder issue in April that turned lengthy because of the Cubs’ cautious approach. ‘‘When that day comes, I’m going to do my best to get us to the promised land.’’
The belief that the 6-3 Edwards has that kind of ability is why Texas Rangers executive Jon Daniels said last spring he thought the 2013
inclusion of Edwards in the trade for Matt Garza ‘‘could come back to haunt us and to haunt me.’’
Edwards compiled a 1.80 ERA in six starts in the AFL. He showcased a mid-90s fastball with so much movement that opposing hitters kept asking him if it was a cutter. So the biggest thing Edwards might have left to prove is the one thing he’s most tired of talking about.
‘‘My durability speaks for itself,’’ Edwards said, referring to his 237 minor-league innings pitched with the shoulder inflammation being his only injury.
But at only 155 pounds, Edwards would be among the skinniest starting pitchers in major-league history. He has a body type that makes evaluators doubt and makes Edwards point to White Sox left-hander Chris Sale. Or ‘‘Oil Can’’ Boyd. Or other slightly built success stories such as Tim Lincecum or Ron Guidry.
‘‘I’m not going to be rude or smart with nobody, but let me get there and then have your questions,’’ Edwards said. ‘‘If I go out every game and give you six [or] seven innings and finish the year strong, then what can they say?’’
For now, the Cubs will wait and see how he holds up — and go after proven arms to fill the rotation.
But former big-league pitcher Ron Villone, the pitching coach from the Cubs’ system who ran Edwards’ AFL staff, said he loves Edwards’ mature approach, his hunger and his work ethic.
And the stuff?
‘‘His fastball and his curveball are plus pitches,’’ Villone said. ‘‘Are they big-league-ready? They’re as close as it gets to being big-league-ready. Experience is going to be his best teacher right now.’’
Edwards isn’t wasting time worrying about the Cubs’ rotation filling up before he gets there. He still has to prove he can make it.
‘‘They get Lester, I’ll be happy,’’ said Edwards, who might open next season at Class AAA Iowa, depending on how the big-league staff shakes out. ‘‘It doesn’t matter whom they go out and get, I’ll be happy. My time will come sooner or later.’’
And then he’ll prove Daniels right?
‘‘I don’t have anything to say about that,’’ Edwards said. ‘‘Maybe someday. You never know. I still have to get there.’’
Said Villone: ‘‘C.J.’s will and his work ethic and the way he goes after it are going to dictate if he’s going to haunt somebody, which is probably going to be an accurate statement one day.’’