While the Chicago Cubs didn’t head into the 2013 season with the expectation that this would definitely be a rebuilding season, they knew it was at least a reasonable possibility—one that’s looking more likely after an 8-14 start.

The rebuilding process took a big step last season as three of the top four prospects in the organization, according to Baseball Prospectus (Albert Almora—draft, Jorge Soler—international free agent, Arodys Vizcaino—acquired in 2012), were added to the farm system after Theo Epstein took over as president of baseball operations in Chicago.

Along with the team’s first-round pick in 2011, shortstop Javier Baez, the Cubs’ quartet of prospects at the top of the list are quite impressive. In less than a year, the future of the team is already looking much brighter.

The rebuilding plan, as it pertains to the second year under Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, could revolve around the trade value of starting pitcher Matt Garza and whether they can add another high-caliber prospect to the organization.

The 29 year-old Garza, who will be a free agent after the season, missed most of the second half of 2012 with a stress reaction in his elbow and has been on the disabled list with a strained lat muscle since the start of this season. 

Recently scratched from his first rehab assignment start with what is being described as a “dead arm”, Garza is now set to make his first rehab start on May 1. If he can get back on track and rejoin the Cubs’ rotation in the next three weeks or so—a very realistic timetable if there are no further setbacks—his value should hold strong as interested teams will be able to get at least 12-15 starts to determine if he can help and if he’s worth the Cubs’ asking price.

My guess is that it will cost a team a top-five prospect—the same as what the Braves had to pay for Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson last July when they traded away their third-ranked prospect, Vizcaino, in the deal.

A strong two months from Garza would likely ensure that the Cubs ask for a prospect of the same caliber as Vizcaino.  

By comparison, Ryan Dempster spent two separate stints on the disabled list (strained quad, strained lat) before he was traded to Texas at last year’s deadline,. The 35 year-old pitcher made 16 starts with the Cubs, however, and was able to showcase his health in four starts after returning from the lat injury in early July.

In those 16 starts, Dempster had a 2.25 ERA, 7.0 H/9, 2.3 BB and 7.2 K/9 in 104 innings pitched. Garza’s 18 starts in 2012 resulted in a 3.91 ERA, 7.8 H/9, 2.8 BB/9 and 8.3 K/9 in 103.2 innings pitched.

Considering that age isn’t likely to make a big difference when comparing two-month rentals, the value of Garza and Dempster shouldn’t be much different, but it doesn’t seem that way for some reason.

Maybe it’s Garza’s reputation as someone who has had success in the AL East. Maybe it’s because several contending teams will need pitching help and Garza could top the list of available pitchers.

Whatever the reason, it’s hard to see the Cubs not getting more for Garza than they received from the Rangers did for Dempster in third baseman Christian Villanueva and a fringe pitching prospect. 

As of now, the list of starting pitchers who will likely be available in July is thin. Struggling teams expected to be “sellers” include the Astros, Marlins and Padres. The Mariners and Twins are also likely headed in that direction.

Lucas Harrell, Jason Marquis, Ricky Nolasco, Bud Norris, Mike Pelfrey, Joe Saunders and Edinson Volquez would likely head the list of available starters from that group. Cubs starter Scott Feldman could also be on the list. 

From a contender’s perspective, Garza would be the top pitcher of that group. If other teams with current losing records, including the Angels (Jason Vargas), Blue Jays (Josh Johnson), Indians (Justin Masterson), Phillies (Roy Halladay), Rays (David Price), and White Sox (Gavin Floyd) can’t turn things around, then Garza would have some competition for the “best starter available” at the trading deadline.

Adding another good prospect in a Garza trade will continue to put the Cubs on the right path to have a young and talented squad in 2015. As for 2014, the third year of the Epstein/Hoyer era, things could get ugly in Chicago if they’re not at least a .500 club.

Expect another busy offseason in free agency and possibly a big trade with one of their top prospects utilized as a centerpiece in a deal.

Getting a good return on Garza would make that even more likely.

I recently wrote about the Cubs being a possible fit for Rays starter David Price and the trade package it might take to acquire him.   

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