Cubs’ bright future lacks starting pitching depth

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NEW YORK – The Cubs don’t need magic tricks. What they need is pitching.

And a well-documented deficit in the organization took another hit this week when top starting pitching prospect Duane Underwood Jr. went on the disabled list and headed to Chicago Tuesday for an MRI on his sore pitching elbow.

The team expected results from the MRI Wednesday.

As they opened a three-game series in New York against the Mets, the significance – not to mention dread over the possible outcome – was not lost on Cubs officials who don’t even know who’s starting for them Saturday because their big-league depth is so thin and beat up.

It was especially stark against the backdrop of an opponent this week that has so much high-end young pitching coming through its organization that it employs a six-man rotation – speaking both to its quality and its youth as the Mets try to protect the young guys’ workloads.

That doesn’t even count Zack Wheeler, 25, one of the Mets’ best young pitchers, who’s out for the season because of Tommy John surgery.

“People always talk about it. You need six prospects to have one,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said.

“Listen, we talk about our imbalance,” he added. “We know we’ve got a lot of really good bats. And I think our bats are ahead of our arms. We’ve got to keep working to address that.”

Some of that imbalance has been intentional as the Cubs conspicuously spent top picks on hitting during this front office’s four drafts.

“When you pick at the top of the draft four straight drafts, we felt like that was the right way to [proceed],” Hoyer said. “There was a security involved, and a confidence in taking hitters at the top of the draft.”

But the Cubs haven’t gotten particularly high marks yet for some of the pitching they have drafted. None of the 80 pitchers drafted by this front office – including 62 before this year – have made it to the big leagues. (only Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber have made it among 162 picks overall).

And none looks especially close.

That includes the first pitcher Theo Epstein’s front office selected in 2012, No. 43-overall pick Pierce Johnson, who has been plagued by nagging injuries and command problems almost from the day he was drafted.

One evaluator recently said he didn’t need all the fingers on one hand to count the number of legitimate big-league starting prospects in the system – and one of those was Underwood.

Before his elbow started feeling sore during a rough first inning in his last start, Underwood, 20, was 6-2 with a 1.85 ERA in 11 starts for high-A Myrtle Beach this season.

On Tuesday he sent out a tweet that said in part, “I ain’t never been so nervous in my life. haha.”

“He was really raw and young when we got him, and he’s developed really well and got great stuff,” Hoyer said. “Hopefully, he’s fine. But you know going in when you draft pitchers or have pitching prospects there may be times when they’re down and you sort of hope for the best health-wise.”

Underwood’s specific status aside, the Cubs’ pitching deficit has the front office at a crossroads over the next few player-acquisition cycles, now that the team is in position to compete.

They’ve covered some of the deficit with money – signing Wednesday’s scheduled starter, Jon Lester to a six-year deal for $155 million. They’ve covered some of the need with trades – former Texas minor-leaguer Kyle Hendricks pitching six scoreless innings Tuesday night; former Oriole Jake Arrieta starting the series finale on Thursday.

But they don’t have nearly enough starting pitching to see this season through to October – much less the inventory coming through the system to project the next several seasons.

“We know that’s an area we have to focus on,” Hoyer said.

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