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Cubs monitor an injury-thinned summer trade market for pitchers

Free agent acquisition John Lackey has a 2.25 ERA in five starts in May for the Cubs.

ST. LOUIS – As the Cubs’ front office prepares to shop in an already thinning July trade market, its decision to be aggressive last winter looks even bigger against the late-season horizon.

“Certainly, that’s something we discussed a lot when we met last winter and talked about what we had to do,” general manager Jed Hoyer said of a plan to cram two off-seasons of acquisitions into one, in anticipation of upcoming scarcity.

“We felt it was a very good free agent class last year, and we liked a lot of players involved,” Hoyer said. “And we knew looking ahead that the [next] class that it was going to be a thin market. And when it’s a thin market at that point, you know it’s only going to get thinner as it gets close to free agency.”

Case in point: Stephen Strasburg’s $175 million extension with the Nationals this month took the top pitcher off next winter’s market. That dropped the top of the market significantly to a next tier that includes the likes Andrew Cashner and Clay Buchholz.

But the market has thinned even relative to the midsummer trading season, especially for pitching, as the Cubs look for possible pitching fixes, insurance and upgrades for the final months of the season and what they expect to be a big October.

Two big pitching targets from last summer, who might have been available this time around, are on the disabled list: San Diego’s Tyson Ross (shoulder) and Cleveland’s Carlos Carrasco (hamstring).

Add Colorado’s Jorge de la Rosa (groin) and Oakland’s Sonny Gray (neck/shoulder area) to the DL rolls, and the Cubs might feel especially validated when they watch free agent additions John Lackey produce a 2.25 ERA in May, Ben Zobrist lead the league in on-base percentage eight weeks into the season and watch the return of Gold Glove right-fielder Jason Heyward Tuesday after only three days sidelined following that frightening catch-and-crash play Friday.

“We’ll keep evaluating where we are and what we need,” Hoyer said of potential tweaks to a team that on Tuesday was the first in the majors to reach 30 wins.

“As far as the starting pitcher market, I think a lot of things are going to happen,” he said. “Teams are going to fall out of contention. Teams are going to get into contention. So I don’t think it’s quite time yet where that’s crystallized at all. But we’ll obviously keep monitoring it.”

Internal options for viable rotation fixes extend only as far as the four-man crew of long relievers in the bullpen. Internal bullpen upgrades amount to recently signed Joe Nathan recapturing a few months of lightning in a bottle after finishing his second Tommy John rehab. And bullpen fixes for injury or underperformance go maybe as deep as Carl Edwards Jr. or Jean Machi.

Meanwhile, the starting rotation with the best ERA in baseball got the strongest start yet from No. 4 man Jason Hammel (6-1), who lowered his ERA to 2.17 with 7 1/3 impressive innings in Tuesday’s 12-3 victory over the Cardinals – pitching like an All-Star candidate in the first half for the second consecutive season.

“We’re aware that pitching in general is something that every team needs around the deadline,” Hoyer said. “And I’m sure we’ll be in that group. And we’ll keep working hard to see where it’s going to come from.”

The sustained performances of guys like Hammel and Lackey might be especially important, given the scarcity of pitching heading toward July.

“Both the deadline and over this next winter, I think that’s going to have an impact on people’s behavior,” Hoyer said.