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Whether Cole Hamels or the next available starter, Cubs could be buyers

Now that the Cubs have reached May with a winning record for the first time in six years, what’s next for these upstarts who seem to think they’re going to keep this up into the fall?

On Wednesday the Cubs learned that MLB’s six-month, high-tech CSI operation into tampering allegations over the hiring of manager Joe Maddon came up empty enough to clear the Cubs of any wrongdoing.

One byproduct of the decision is that the Cubs stockpile of prospects remains safely protected from any kind of compensation penalty as the club starts to envision a summer in which they might actually, realistically consider themselves buyers in July – for the first time in the Cub careers of ownership, the front office and every player in the clubhouse.

And that could put them in a line for starting pitching this summer that includes the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox. Major league sources say the Cubs have continued to touch base with the Phillies on Cole Hamels, even as Hamels chatter has quieted since March – though some insiders believe a team like the Red Sox is more likely to get aggressive and/or desperate enough to swing a deal for the left-hander.

But the Cubs clearly are thinking as much in the front office as they are on the field of putting themselves in position to make a late-season move, and starting pitching is the likeliest priority at this point — in an abrupt reversal from three years of trading away starters two at a time.

“You’re always thinking about that stuff,” said general manager Jed Hoyer, pointing out it’s still too early to think too specifically. “You’re at a stage where a two- or three-game winning streak or losing streak really changes your outlook in a hurry.

“But certainly we’re hopeful that we’re in that position. And we’re obviously going to prepare as if that’s the case.”

Even with Wednesday’s 8-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cubs concluded a 12-8 April schedule that finished with four wins in five days and included the debuts of top prospects Kris Bryant and Addison Russell.

“Listen, if we can continue – and I believe we can – to come out with the mental acuity on a nightly basis and with the desire to play the game properly, we can definitely maintain this stuff,” Maddon said of the .600 start. “Because we have good athletes, who are good baseball players; they’re young. Now it’s just a matter of us being able to ferociously repeat fundamentals on a daily basis.”

And, maybe, find just enough additional starting pitching to make this team look more like a serious contender the way it might have with the free agent that got away, James Shields – who beat the Cubs barely two months after the San Diego Padres, instead of the Cubs, landed him.

Underscoring the point about pitching was the six-inning performance Wednesday of Pirates ace Gerrit Cole (4-0), who struck out eight, didn’t allow an earned run and didn’t allow a hit after the second – retiring 14 of the last 15 he faced.

Whether Hamels could make the get-over-the-top difference the Cubs might seek, the Cubs could be in better position to compete for him now that some of the pieces that came up in earlier talks – Bryant and Russell – are in the lineup and unquestionably off the table.

As for the $94 million owed Hamels over the next four years?

“We are open-minded,” Phillies GM Ruben Amaro told USA Today. “We’re not afraid to subsidize contracts. We never told a club that we would not absolutely subsidize his contract. If there’s a deal to be made, we’ll do it.”