Ray of hope? Alex Cobb could be key to filling Cubs’ pitching needs

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Alex Cobb

ORLANDO, Fla. — The way the Cubs look at filling their pitching needs this winter, the bullpen gaps — including the closer — are the least of their worries.

That’s why much of their effort and resources are being earmarked for their pursuit of at least two starting pitchers, at least one of whom they can project as a middle-of-the-rotation-or-better piece in the wake of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey entering free agency.

The key might be former Rays right-hander Alex Cobb, who looks like the top free-agent fit for the Cubs and who seems to agree, considering recent comments he made about the team during an MLB Network Radio interview.

Those close to Cobb say clubhouse chemistry and personal fit, along with the chance to win, are his priorities as he sorts through an early list of suitors numbering close to 10 teams.

The Cubs already have his first big-league manager in place and just hired the only big-league pitching coach he has known. Plus, sources say the Cubs have had multiple preliminary conversations with Cobb’s agent, none of them involving any kind of contract parameters.

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‘‘I don’t hide the fact that I have the most respect for [Cubs manager] Joe Maddon and what he did for me coming up as a player — not so much as a pitcher on the mound, but as a professional athlete and professional baseball player,’’ Cobb said during the radio interview. ‘‘It had to deal with the stresses that come with a big-league lifestyle. There’s nobody better in the game to control and deal with people as he is.’’

Cobb is even tighter with new Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey.

‘‘He’s not only a good pitching coach but a real close friend of mine,’’ Cobb said.

Cobb, who’s almost 30 months removed from Tommy John surgery, suggested he’s looking for a five-year contract as he comes off a career-high 29 starts and 179„ innings in his first full season back. He was 12-10 with a 3.66 ERA for a losing Rays team.

The Cubs, who aren’t expected to go after anticipated market-setters Arrieta and Yu Darvish, are looking at almost every other option for adding starters who could join Jose Quintana, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks in their rotation.

They also have talked with the agent for former Cardinals right-hander Lance Lynn, a free agent among the next tier of starters, and are looking for potential trade fits, too.

But general manager Jed Hoyer on Tuesday tempered the notion the Cubs are as willing to part with pieces from their big-league roster as it might seem. He emphasized how important to the Cubs’ success their depth at several positions has been the last three seasons.

‘‘You can’t ignore that,’’ Hoyer said.

Exactly what starters might be available in trades at what prices is also anything but certain, he said.

A successful courtship of Cobb — the 39th-ranked big-league starter in terms of WAR, according to Fangraphs — might clarify the means to checking off the rest of the Cubs’ winter wish list.

‘‘We’re going to acquire pitching,’’ Hoyer said. ‘‘It’s about how.’’

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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