MESA, Ariz. – Beyond the symbolism of Opening Day, Jeff Samardzija knows the Cubs have to get off to a fast start. Or else. Because this front office isn’t going to hesitate if it looks like they should be sellers at the trade deadline.
After Friday’s 6-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks at HoHoKam Stadium, Dale Sveum played it coy again and wouldn’t reveal who will be starting on April 1 in Pittsburgh.
But at this point it would be a major upset if the manager picks anyone other than Samardzija, who wants the responsibility that comes with being a No. 1 starter.
Whenever Samardzija takes the ball, he will feel a real sense of urgency, understanding that the first six weeks or two months could determine the entire direction of the 2013 season.
“Without a doubt,” Samardzija said after three up-and-down innings. “It’s very, very important, especially with guys like (Matt) Garza and these different dudes that are about to be free agents.
“We need to show that when they’re on this team, we’re a more capable team – to win games and make the playoffs and go from there. That’s for us to prove on the field. And as long as we can do that, then you can add pieces instead of taking them away.”
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Last summer’s fire sale combined with Garza’s elbow injury left the Cubs with a Triple-A rotation, making it a race to the bottom.
Team president Theo Epstein has made it clear that he will do it again this year, recently telling MLB Network Radio “it could get a little ugly” if the Cubs fall out of contention.
Epstein repeated that stance to the Chicago Tribune this week, saying in that scenario the Cubs would have to trade in veterans for prospects, the way they did last year with Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, etc.
“Was that an ‘Obvious Paper?’” Samardzija said, laughing, when asked about those comments. “Yeah, I mean, that makes sense, right? If we’re out of it, I doubt they’re just going to keep the whole team together.
“But, again, that’s not what our plan is. Our plan is to put them in a tough situation on what they want to do halfway through the year. (If) we’re doing our job and we’re winning ballgames, they’re going to have a tough decision.”
In that best-case projection, the Cubs would need huge leaps forward from players like Samardzija, who walked three and gave up one run but is no longer pitching for his career in spring training.
“He’s on a different voyage,” Sveum said. “Last year was to prove that he could start and obviously he did that. Now his mission is to be one of the best starting pitchers in baseball.”
When was the last time you heard a major-market team and its fan base wondering in late February/early March if the front office would be selling come July?
Well, chairman Tom Ricketts inherited the foundation for “unsustainable” success from those payroll levels that led to division titles in 2007 and 2008 and a reckoning after the sale from Tribune Co. The Cubs aren’t going to scrap the plan after a 101-loss season.
“That’s part of the business,” Sveum said. “If your team is out of it, (you) start building and getting healthier as an organization. (It) just comes down to that, unfortunately. But, hopefully, we don’t have to worry about that. Hopefully, we’re buying people.”
If the Cubs are going to be this year’s Baltimore Orioles or Oakland A’s and make a surprise run to the playoffs, they’re going to have to survive a brutal early schedule, with only one day off between April 3 and May 5.
That includes 22 games against the Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers, San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers and Cincinnati Reds – followed by five straight games against the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals.
“Our job as players (is to) take care of business on the field (and) make their decision easy on what they should do,” Samardzija said.
The Cubs won’t be the center of attention in April or May. The Blackhawks should have lost a game or two by then but will be making another Stanley Cup run. The Bulls may or may not have Derrick Rose running point and taking aim at the Miami Heat.
By the time the fans shift their focus back to baseball, the season could already be decided. What was that Yogi Berra once said? It gets late early out there?