MESA, Ariz. — Eddie Butler walked into the hallway off the Cubs’ clubhouse Friday morning to check the bulletin board just as Jake Arrieta walked in from the other direction.
“Nice job,” Arrieta said of Butler’s start the day before, patting the promising young right-hander on the shoulder as he walked by.
Two shifts passing in the night — or at least in the Cubs’ rotation?
If the Cubs effectively bridge the sizeable gap in starting pitching that figures to be created next winter by Arrieta and John Lackey leaving in free agency, this is where it could start.
Nobody, including Butler, is going to claim to be an Arrieta in the making. But the former Colorado Rockies first-round draft pick has made a strong impression on the Cubs since his change-of-scenery trade last month. He’s 4-0 with a 2.70 ERA this spring after four scoreless innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday.
“I’m trying to force their hand, pretty much, trying to prove I’m the pitcher that they wanted over here,” Butler said. “And I want to make an impact as quick as possible for this team.”
Barring an injury to a starting pitcher before the Cubs break camp in two weeks, there’s no hand for Butler to force — something even he admits. Guaranteed contracts run 13 deep among pitchers in Cubs camp.
But the trade for Butler, like the trade a week later for the Kansas City Royals’ Alec Mills, is about the changes the Cubs see coming to a World Series-winning rotation that might have an especially short shelf life and little in the way of minor-league backfill candidates anytime soon.
“We’re trying to acquire as many guys with a chance to blossom and be part of our rotation in the future as possible,” said team president Theo Epstein, who already did that successfully with Kyle Hendricks in a 2012 trade and Arrieta in a trade a year later.
The search for more pitching continues whether Butler sticks or not. For now, he might be the most intriguing candidate for one of those pending vacancies in the rotation.
“It’s there for the taking, man,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s always up to the individual. He definitely has that kind of stuff. He has high-end, major-league-starter stuff. It’s up to him. It’s all up to him.”
The Cubs actually had the chance to acquire Butler five years ago out of college but instead selected right-hander Pierce Johnson three spots ahead of him.
Butler, 26, who struggled in parts of three big-league seasons with the Rockies (6.50 career ERA), embraces the fresh start with a new team that targeted him as a potential long-term piece — and doesn’t play its home games at Coors Field (where Butler’s ERA was more than 2½ points higher than on the road).
“A couple of guys have contracts that are ending and are going to be free agents,” said Butler, who has one minor-league option and five years of club control left. “I know that’s why they brought me over. I had the availability of the option and then a lot of years of control still.”
That option means that after working with him at the major-league level all spring, the Cubs will slot him in the rotation at Class AAA Iowa and look for a right time to put him in the big-league rotation. They did something similar with Arrieta in 2013, on a shorter timeline. One big difference this time around is that this is a championship team looking to sustain a lengthy run.
“I’m trying to build trust as well,” Butler said, “just being consistent. And if I end up in AAA, just continue that consistency.”
He still wants to make the team out of camp but also knows the minor-league option is a big reason why the trade worked at all to put him in position to fight for a place.
“It’s a weird situation,” he said. “The biggest thing I can do right now is go out there and prove everybody wrong and prove these guys right, that I was the right move for them.”
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