After pursuing Sanchez, would Cubs go all-in with Samardzija and Garza?

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After pursuing Sanchez, would Cubs go all-in with Samardzija and Garza?

The Cubs dont have a true Plan B after losing out on Anibal Sanchez, in that they dont see any other free agent on the market worth that kind of commitment.

But those negotiations which for team president Theo Epstein and chairman Tom Ricketts ended last week at the walkaway point of five years, 77.5 million must have gotten the attention of the players already inside the clubhouse. The meter is definitely running for Jeff Samardzija and Matt Garza.

While the Detroit Tigers rolled out Sanchez for Mondays news conference announcing a new five-year, 80 million contract (plus a club option for 2018), the Cubs continued with their incremental moves.

MORE: Cubs lose out on Anibal Sanchez

The Cubs confirmed the signing of Chang-Yong Lim to a two-year, minor-league contract. While rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, the right-handed reliever gets a 100,000 signing bonus, and then monthly minor-league salaries (unless his contract is purchased). This is a low-risk investment in someone who has pitched professionally the last 17 seasons in Korea and Japan.

MORE: Taking a small risk, Cubs closing in on Chang-Yong Lim

The Cubs also made third baseman Ian Stewarts one-year, 2 million deal (plus incentives) official, while designating left-handed reliever Jeff Beliveau for assignment.

But as the Cubs try to build a rotation for October, the major decisions on the horizon will involve Garza and Samardzija.

Garza, who recently turned 29, is only three months older than Sanchez and entering the final year of his contract. In the past, general manager Jed Hoyer has said that the Cubs want more Matt Garzas, not less Matt Garzas. Its hard to distinguish the career numbers from Sanchez (48-51, 3.75 ERA) and Garza (57-61, 3.84 ERA).

But the options trade, extend, let the season play out appear to be on hold while Garza begins throwing again and lets the stress reaction in his right elbow heal.

The Cubs put a potential Samardzija extension on their offseason agenda, though there were indications a deal is unlikely this winter. That shouldnt set off any alarms, because Samardzija is a Chicago guy who has repeatedly said that this is where he wants to be. Epstein and Hoyer agree that he checks off many of their boxes, from raw talent to body type to makeup.

Just remember that All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro was in a different place last summer when he signed a team-friendly, seven-year, 60 million extension that contains a club option for 2020.

Samardzija has already made millions and likes to bet on himself. He did that when he decided to play baseball, turning down the NFL after an All-American career at Notre Dame. He did it again last offseason, lobbying Epstein for a chance in the rotation after he had established himself in the bullpen.

Samardzija recently went golfing in Arizona with manager Dale Sveum and Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney. Samardzija is expected to embrace a bigger leadership role, especially since Ryan Dempster wont be around to push the younger pitchers and take the ball on Opening Day April 1.

Obviously, its a little early to announce our No. 1 starter, but hes ready to go, Sveum said during an interview at the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn. The biggest thing is he can go into this season knowing that theres not that 165th inning coming up soon.

Technically, Samardzija threw 174.2 innings last season, which ended for him with a dominant complete game on Sept. 8 at PNC Park, where the Cubs will coincidentally begin their 2013 schedule against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Samardzija didnt feel like he had to be shut down, and wants to be unleashed for 200-plus innings.

The swagger and confidence Cubs officials saw years ago is back. Some were said to be on the sidelines in South Bend, Ind., during the 2005 Bush Push Game against USC. Before Reggie Bush shoved Matt Leinart into the end zone for a 34-31 win, they loved hearing Samardzija scream at the defensive secondary and talk trash while notching six catches for 99 yards and one touchdown against the nations No. 1 team.

Hes such a competitive guy, Sveum said. Hes that horse. Hes that guy you want on your staff and now he can just go out and relax. He doesnt have to do anything except be Jeff Samardzija. He learned a tremendous amount about starting pitching. We all witnessed that.

What will that cost the Cubs if Samardzija continues on this trajectory? Hes eligible for arbitration the next three years, so theres no rush. But look beyond his 9-13 record and 3.81 ERA last season and youll see that he averaged 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings pitched and posted a 2.58 ERA in 11 starts after the All-Star break.

Theres no question pitchers will benefit from the rapid inflation and the new television money flooding the game.

Zack Greinke got his six-year, 147 million megadeal from the Los Angeles Dodgers, who should be bankrolled by a potential 6 billion television contract with Fox Sports. Questions about how Dempster will perform in the American League East didnt stop the Boston Red Sox from giving him a two-year, 26.5 million contract, even though he will turn 36 in May.

The Cubs took a shot on Sanchez, even though they knew their interest would probably get leaked to the media. They braced for a second-place finish. They understood there was a strong preference to return to the Tigers, but thought it was important to send a message. It will be interesting to see if they have go-for-it urges with Garza and Samardzija.

Cubs: Ben Zobrist's path back to October and a possible three-peat

Cubs: Ben Zobrist's path back to October and a possible three-peat

MESA, Ariz. – Ben Zobrist is focused on a personal three-peat, not worrying about a changing of the guard or any awkward moments with Javier Baez. Cubs manager Joe Maddon has repeatedly said that Zobrist will be the primary second baseman and another "Javy Being Javy" highlight reel from the World Baseball Classic won't change that thinking right now.

Zobrist sees the big picture better than almost anyone else in the clubhouse after going undrafted out of Eureka High School in downstate Illinois, perfecting the super-utility role Maddon envisioned with the Tampa Bay Rays and helping transform the 2015 Kansas City Royals into World Series champions.

While Baez started all 17 playoff games at second base last year, bursting onto the scene as the National League Championship co-MVP, Zobrist became the World Series MVP with his clutch hitting and still has three seasons left on his $56 million contract.

Maddon didn't spare anyone's feelings during the playoffs, turning $184 million outfielder Jason Heyward into a part-time player, giving a quick hook to major-league ERA leader Kyle Hendricks and shunning relievers not named Aroldis Chapman.

"We haven't had an extended conversation about it," Zobrist said. "But at the beginning of spring, we talked about it. I think his words were: ‘I really think rest is the next improvement in player performance.' Learning what rest means, what good rest is for players and what kind of rest certain players need versus others.

"That doesn't necessarily mean just because you're 35. It could mean you're 25 and you still got to take care of yourself and make sure you're getting the proper rest. Because we have such a deep team, he's able to do that at any given point in time and still feel confident about the team we have on the field.

"It's a good problem to have when you have really good players not playing and sitting on the bench. We had that all last year and we had guys accept their role and just buy into the team concept.

"The makeup of this team is the same, basically. We've got a few new guys and they've got the same mindset, so I anticipate more of the same."

Injuries are one variable that prevents Maddon from getting too stressed out about dividing the playing time over 162 games while the NCAA tournament is still going. Zobrist's stiff neck felt good enough to hit leadoff and play right field in Tuesday afternoon's 10-7 loss to the San Francisco Giants, seeing his first Cactus League action since March 19.

Zobrist plans to play again on Wednesday in Mesa and catch up with more at-bats on the minor-league side of the complex. Assuming Zobrist and All-Star shortstop Addison Russell (stiff back) are ready for Opening Night, Baez will be an NLCS MVP, all-WBC talent waiting for the right matchup or break in the schedule or to sub in as a defensive replacement.

"It's pretty impressive, looking around at the young talent in this clubhouse," Zobrist said. "All throughout spring training, we've seen there's definitely other talent coming, so this team is poised to have a good, long run of success. If everybody stays healthy and we stay together, this is a very good team.

"The biggest thing that I go into the season with this year is we have to be healthy and we have to make sure that we don't relax too much. That's the temptation for teams that just won, to go: OK, well, we're tired, because we had a long season last year and you kind of just assume things are going to go as well as they did.

"You can't assume anything. No matter how good this team is, we have to still go out and execute and perform – and that's going to determine where we are in the standings."

In real time, as the Cubs experienced their lowest moments during last year's regular season, Zobrist correctly pointed out the exhaustion factor while the team played 24 days in a row, losing 15 of their last 21 games before the All-Star break.

What looks like overwhelming depth on paper should help the 2017 Cubs survive and advance into October.

"It's huge," Zobrist said. "It's up and down the lineup on offense. It's all throughout the pitching staff and on the defensive side. It's so deep that you can absorb a little bit of injury here and there.

"With that being said, there are certain guys that you just don't want to lose. So we got to protect everybody. We got to protect our horses – both on the mound and in the lineup – and just make sure that we have our key cogs in there. And if we do, we're as good, if not better, than anybody out there."

Cubs return Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith to Yankees as roster comes into focus

Cubs return Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith to Yankees as roster comes into focus

MESA, Ariz. - Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella - and a combination of right/left, outfield/infield and contractual considerations - appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

The Cubs returned Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith to the New York Yankees on Tuesday and assigned injured non-roster players Jemile Weeks and Chris Dominguez to minor-league camp. That left 27 players still technically in the mix, though depth catcher Carlos Corporan isn't really part of that conversation.

The projected eight-man bullpen would look like this: Wade Davis; Koji Uehara; Pedro Strop; Hector Rondon; Carl Edwards Jr.; Justin Grimm; and lefties Mike Montgomery and Brian Duensing.

Szczur, who is out of minor-league options, could be a good fourth outfielder on a team that didn't have so much depth and World Series expectations, making him a potential trade chip for pitching. La Stella offers infield insurance and a left-handed bat off the bench.