Off the ropes, Samardzija comes out swinging

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Off the ropes, Samardzija comes out swinging

MESA, Ariz. Jeff Samardzija cut off a reporter asking about the possibility of going to the bullpen if the rotation doesnt work out: The worst question Ive ever heard.

Samardzija didnt even crack a smile. The deadpan delivery was perfect. But it does speak to his confidence level and state of mind. What a difference a year makes.

Its up to me to go out and earn, Samardzija said Monday. I want to put no doubt in their minds that pitching every fifth day is whats best for this team.

The Cubs are in a different place now, and they are going to give Samardzija a very long look. Twelve months ago, he was out of options, and the Notre Dame star had done little to justify his 10 million contract.

It was an eye-opening experience, Samardzija said, just because Ive never been in that situation in my life (before). To come out and be on the ropes and really have to perform was big.

Samardzija responded with a breakthrough season out of the bullpen, going 8-4 with a 2.97 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 88 innings, showing people why former general manager Jim Hendry convinced the All-American wide receiver to give up on the NFL.

As soon as Theo Epstein took over, he made it a priority to add depth to the rotation, a weakness that destroyed last season and led to sweeping changes at Clark and Addison.

Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm are essentially locks. Chris Volstad will likely be the fourth starter. That leaves Randy Wells, Travis Wood and Samardzija among a group fighting for the last spot.

At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, Samardzija is built to handle 200 innings, and hes not afraid of the bright lights. While Chicago came down with Theo-mania, he purposely spent almost all of the offseason working out in Arizona.

Hes obviously a different guy than he was a year or two years ago, manager Dale Sveum said. His confidence level is at a peak level right now and hes on a mission.

Samardzija knows how the hype machine works, how easily you can go from being the next big thing to a total bust. He actually thought the Epstein-to-Chicago coverage wasnt that over-the-top, because the step-by-step rebuilding process makes sense.

Samardzija respects the former Red Sox executives running things now and believes in their game plan. But hes still loyal to where hes from and the guy who signed him. Heres how he turned around a question about what he knew about Epstein before:

Nothing, I wasnt a Red Sox fan growing up, Samardzija said. Im still really not a big East Coast fan. Im a Chicago guy and was pretty oblivious to all that. But obviously I knew of them and what theyve done and the way they approach things. (Even with that resume), for me personally, they have big shoes to fill after Jim left.

Samardzija understands the hard work ahead, that you dont hire Epstein and then automatically begin planning the parade down Michigan Avenue.

It seems like Samardzijas been around forever, but hes still only 27 years old. He was fast-tracked to Wrigley Field and got on the 97-win team that was supposed to win it all in 2008.

Samardzija spent most of the next two seasons at Triple-A Iowa, while the Cubs devolved into a fifth-place team. He was asked if he would have been better off with a defined role and the same pitching coach the past few years, a question that can never really be answered.

Looking back on it, did we have the best plan? Probably not, Samardzija said. (But) the most important thing was winning games at that time. You cant sit and tell Lou (Piniella) that we need to save this kid for three years.

Skip, Jim, all those guys wanted to win that year. Thats professional ball. To have a plan is one thing, but sometimes you got to go off the plan a little bit. I just had to learn on the fly, man, and its definitely been a learning experience.

But Im very grateful for everything thats happened and put me in the situation that I am here. You go through some struggles and you come out after that and usually youre a little bit stronger.

Cubs, White Sox react to tragic deaths of Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

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AP

Cubs, White Sox react to tragic deaths of Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

The sports world woke up to some tragic news on Sunday morning.

Former major leaguer Andy Marte and Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura were both killed in separate car accidents in the Dominican Republic within an hour of each other, according to multiple reports. A Royals representative confirmed the death of 25-year-old Ventura.

The Cubs and White Sox took to Twitter to give their condolences:

Ventura was a member of the Royals from 2013-16 and won a World Series title in 2015 with Ben Zobrist and Wade Davis, who the Cubs acquired this offseason for Jorge Soler. Ventura also played with White Sox pitcher James Shields in 2013-14.

Marte, 33, played a majority of his seven-year career with the Cleveland Indians. He was teammates with Todd Hollandsworth (Atlanta 2005), Kerry Wood (Cleveland 2009-10), and Miguel Montero (Arizona 2014).

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Theo Epstein's front office is heading into Year 6 with the Cubs and they're finally talking about a pitcher as one of the organization's most exciting prospects.

That's how senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod framed his Dylan Cease report to fans at the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago last weekend.

It was a tongue-in-cheek summation from McLeod after he spent the previous few minutes fawning over Cease, the Cubs' sixth round pick in 2014.

Of course, McLeod and the Cubs can poke fun at the lack of impact pitching the farm system has developed when the homegrown position players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber just helped lead the franchise to its first World Series championship in over a century.

Cease, however, has been one of the more intriguing Cubs prospects for years — a right-handed pitcher capable of touching 101 mph on the radar gun.

"This guy is throwing lightning bolts out of his arm," McLeod said. "It's really exciting. But we also understaned he's only in Low-A this year, so he's far away."

The Cubs expect Cease to pitch for Class-A South Bend in 2017 after spending last season pitching for short-season Eugene and the 2015 campaign working in the rookie league in Arizona.

Cease — who just turned 21 in late December — put up some impressive numbers at both stops in the Cubs system, posting a 2.36 ERA and 1.165 WHIP to go along with a whopping 91 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. He also only surrendered one homer and walked more batters (41) than reached via a basehit (39).

Control is obviously an issue for Cease, but the upside is evident.

"He's so far away," McLeod said. "He's gonna go into 2017 as a starter. As with a lot of young guys, it's gonna come down to command and depend on that third pitch and the ability to land them for strikes.

"It's a special arm. He can pitch 95-100 mph with a big power curveball. He's unlike anyone else we have in our system since we've been here in terms of pure stuff."

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One fan compared Cease to Carl Edwards Jr. in terms of their lanky build and high velocity, setting McLeod up for a layup joke.

"Well, Dylan is much stronger physically than CJ is...as is everybody in this room," McLeod said as the ballroom filled with laugher. "Don't tell [CJ] I said that. 

"They have different body types, obviously. Carl is long and lanky and Dylan has probably put on 20 pounds since we drafted him, so he's more like 6-foot-2, 190."

By comparison, Edwards — who goes by "The String Bean Slinger" for his slight build — is listed at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds.

Edwards was drafted in the 48th round in 2011 and spent his whole minor-league career as a starting pitcher until the Cubs converted him to a reliever in 2015.

Cease may eventually go down the same path, but the Cubs are going to give him every opportunity to make it as a starter first.

Cease was one of the top pitchers available in the 2014 draft, but his stock took a hit when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow while at Milton High School in Georgia.

That scared off a lot of teams — as did the potential signability issues with college offers looming — but the Cubs took a chance and have now watched Cease soar to a top prospect in the system (No. 4 by Baseball America; No. 7 by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus) despite the cautious approach and lack of innings in professional ball.

"We have to thank Kyle Schwarber, actually, as one of the main reasons we got to sign Dylan Cease," McLeod said. "Because we took Kyle fourth overall, we were able to save money on the selection with him, which gave us the resources to go get Dylan Cease.

"He was a Top 10 pick in the draft — a high school arm that got hurt, fell down to the fifth round and he had a commitment to Vanderbilt, I think it was, and we were able to use the money we saved from Kyle.

"Just another reason to love Kyle Schwarber."