Jeff Samardzija is just getting started

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Jeff Samardzija is just getting started

MESA, Ariz. This had to be the impression Jeff Samardzija wanted to leave in the minds of Cubs coaches and executives before they gathered in the room.

Its unclear if Samardzijas spot in the rotation was ever really in doubt. But he responded by shutting down the Cleveland Indians for six innings in a 2-0 victory at HoHoKam Stadium that became the run-up to Wednesday nights meeting to finalize the roster.

Well see what happens, Samardzija said, but Im really not too worried about it.

The Cubs took the long view and recognized Samardzijas potential, ignoring their glaring need for a power arm in the bullpen to get the ball to closer Carlos Marmol. They saw a 6-foot-5-inch, 225-pound freakish athlete. They had to find out if he could give them 200 innings instead of 70.

This could be an insight into their thinking: Randy Wells, who was supposed to pitch in relief on Wednesday, didnt get the chance to make a final impression. He was pushed back to start on Sunday and seems to profile well as the long man.

The answers will be revealed on Thursday, after manager Dale Sveum sits down with team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and other club officials.

Well all be in the meeting and give our two cents, Sveum said. We got 22 or 21 guys that are pretty much decided and well spend more than four hours on the other four guys.

You go back and forth in all kinds of scenarios and sometimes a guy brings (one up) and youre like, Oh, I didnt think of that one and you got to cover your butt (and) you might spend 45 minutes on (that).

Will they spend much time on Samardzija? He showed that he learned something from his last outing seven runs on 10 hits in four innings against the Colorado Rockies and kept a left-handed Indians lineup off-balance.

Samardzija struck out five, walked one and allowed only three hits. He even tripled and showed off the speed (its still there) that made him a football star at Notre Dame.

Thats what Ive been preaching for years now, Samardzija said. I want to be an athlete. I want to hit. I want to run the bases. I want to field my position (and) show I can do it.

Instead of relaxing after a breakthrough season (8-4, 2.75 ERA), Samardzija purposely moved to his place in Arizona and trained at the Cubs complex. He worked out alongside Ryan Dempster, the leader of the pitching staff.

He really wants it bad, Dempster said. Hes come a long way as a pitcher. Hes 27, but hes got like a 24-year-old arm, because he didnt pitch all those years when he was too busy scoring touchdown passes.

Youve seen huge improvements. Hes got tremendous stuff, great makeup and a lot of confidence. He can do some special things.

From the moment you walked into Fitch Park six weeks ago, you noticed Samardzijas sense of urgency. It almost became a running joke: Looks like Samardzijas headed to the rotation just ask him.

I really learned a lot over these past five spring trainings, he said. Being a young guy, you got to come into camp like spring is the season. Unless youve got a six-year deal and eight years in the big leagues, nothings for sure in camp.

I didnt take anything for granted this year. I just wanted to be ready to go, (so) I knew that whatever happened, I left it all out there.

The new decision-makers are intrigued by how much is still left. The ironic part is that Samardzija was aligned closely with former general manager Jim Hendry, who structured a five-year, 10 million contract that convinced him to not pursue the NFL.

In 13 months, the conversation has gone from the Cubs having to carry Samardzija on the roster, to the team thinking he could lift the rotation.

Ive been in meetings where they can get really heated, because some people are attached to somebody and that means a lot, Sveum said. But sometimes you have to put your feelings aside when it comes to these decisions and (remember) whats best for the 25 guys and the organization.

That likely means Samardzija will get what he wants.

Jake Arrieta expects Cubs to have the best rotation in baseball

Jake Arrieta expects Cubs to have the best rotation in baseball

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Jake Arrieta is a Cy Young Award winner who won't get the Opening Night assignment. John Lackey is a No. 3 starter already fitted for his third World Series ring. Kyle Hendricks led the majors with a 2.13 ERA last year and won't start until the fifth game of this season.  

Do you feel like this is the best rotation in baseball?

"We're up there, yeah," Arrieta said after homering off Zack Greinke during Thursday afternoon's 5-5 tie with the Arizona Diamondbacks at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. "I think on paper – and with what we've actually done on the field – it's tough to not say that.

"We like the guys we have. People can rank them, but time will tell. Once we get out there the first four or five times through the rotation, I think you can probably put a stamp on it then, more so than now. 

"But, yeah, we stack up just as well as anybody out there, for sure."  

Arrieta made it through five innings against the Diamondbacks, giving up three runs and eight hits in what figures to be his second-to-last Cactus League tune-up before facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on April 4. 

The New York Mets blew away Cubs hitters with their power pitching and game-planning during that 2015 National League Championship Series sweep. The Washington Nationals are trying to keep Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg healthy and already watched Tanner Roark deliver for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. 

The Cubs dreaded the idea of facing Johnny Cueto in a possible elimination game at Wrigley Field last October. The Los Angeles Dodgers almost became a matchup nightmare for the Cubs with lefties Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill during the 2016 NLCS.

But slotting Hendricks at No. 5 – five months after he started a World Series Game 7 – is a luxury few contenders can afford. 

"That just speaks to our length in the rotation," Arrieta said, "and being able to keep relievers out of the game, longer than most teams. That's a big deal, especially when you get into July and August. 

"Obviously, Kyle could be a 1 or 2 just about anywhere. Not that he's not here. We've got several of those, which is a good problem to have. It's going to be favorable for us when there's a No. 4 or No. 5 guy in our rotation going up against somebody else's. Our chances are really good, especially with our lineup." 

Arrieta talked up No. 4 starter Brett Anderson as "a little bit like Hendricks from the left side" in terms of his preparation, cerebral nature and spin rate, a combination that makes him an X-factor for this rotation and an organization starved for pitching beyond 2017. 

The if-healthy disclaimer always comes with Anderson, who played with Arrieta on the 2008 Olympic team and has been on the disabled list nine times since then. Coming out of high school, Arrieta initially signed to play for Anderson's father, Frank, the Oklahoma State University coach at the time, before going in a different direction in a career that wouldn't truly take off until he got to Chicago. 

"We're all looking forward to seeing how we pick up where we left off," Arrieta said. "Judging by what we've done this spring and the shape guys are in and the health – I don't see any reason we can't jump out to an early lead like we did last year and sustain it throughout the entire season."
 

Cubs Talk Podcast: The making of Reign Men

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Cubs Talk Podcast: The making of Reign Men

In the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull sits down with CSN executive producers Ryan McGuffey and Sarah Lauch, the creators of 'Reign Men: The Story Behind Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, which premieres March 27 at 9:30 p.m. on CSN.

McGuffey and Lauch share their experience making the 52-minute documentary as they sifted through hours of sound from the likes of Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein, Jason Heyward, Anthony Rizzo and more recapping one of the greatest baseball games ever played.

Plus, hear a sneak peak of 'Reign Men’ as Heyward and Epstein describe their perspective of the Rajai Davis game-tying homer and that brief rain delay that led to Heyward’s epic speech.

Check out the latest Cubs Talk Podcast right here: